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The Times and Sunday Times
Tuesday September 21 2021 | Issue 99
Crime Club
By Mark Sanderson
Many congratulations to Robbie Morrison. His debut crime novel, Edge of the Grave, now in paperback (Pan, £8.99), was awarded the Bloody Scotland debut prize in Stirling this weekend. In April I commented on the lovely endpapers of the hardback edition that suggest the swirling murk of the oil-slicked Clyde. Great design makes such a difference to the reading experience (if not to the judges of such prizes). It must be a sign of our penny-pinching times that the only other novel with illustrated endpapers (ominous subaqueous blues) I’ve received since then is The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller (Viking, £14.99), published in July.

You can read Nick Rennison’s review of Edge of the Grave here
Mark Sanderson
Crime Club editor
Star pick 1
★ Star pick
The Unheard by Nicci French
Simon & Schuster, £14.99
A three-year-old returns from a night at her father’s house saying: “He did kill. Kill and kill and kill.” You can read my review by clicking below:
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Sean French and Nicci Gerrard on encountering real crimes
In a piece specially written for Crime Club, Sean French and Nicci Gerrard (pictured) — the husband-and-wife team behind the Nicci French brand — reveal what happens when crime writers encounter real crime...

As Nicci French we create fictional crimes, crimes that have been shaped into stories and given a meaning and a moral. But in real life it’s something completely different. It’s messy, it’s chaotic — it doesn’t make sense. And we know because we’ve both experienced it.

Sean French: I always thought I’d be the perfect witness. I’m a writer. I’ve supposedly got an eye for detail. Then, some years ago, on a street in east London, I became one. I was on my way to visit my brother’s new baby when a man approached me asking for help with his car. I politely demurred and a few moments later, just inside my brother’s house, I heard shouts, turned and saw people running around. I later discovered that the man had robbed the next-door house. At gunpoint.

I was interviewed by the police as a key witness. After all, we’d talked, he’d been right in front of me. He was male. I remembered that. Could I describe how he was dressed? No. Wearing a hat? Couldn’t remember. Coat? Jacket? Just a shirt? Sorry. Any distinguishing features? Not that I could recall. I tried over and over again to recapture the scene, but there was nothing there. (The man was caught, randomly, a few days later while committing another crime. I wasn’t called as a witness at the trial.)

If I’d read about a witness like me in a crime novel, I wouldn’t have believed it. He must have been a liar or drunk. But the fact was I hadn’t been paying attention, my mind was on other things. I learnt a lesson that day about the brain, about the fallibility of our perception. But I wouldn’t dare put it in one of our novels.

Nicci Gerrard: Many years ago, I was mugged. It was late at night on a dark and rainy street in London. The sound of running footsteps; two young men in hoodies, holding iron bars in their hands. So far, so generic. What happened next was chaotic and farcical.

The friend I was with took to his heels, scattering money as he went. One of the men followed him. The other man, looking terrified, gave me a light tap and I sat down on the ground sobbing and clutching the plastic bag I was holding — which had an old hairbrush in it and nothing else. He tried to take it from me but I wouldn’t let go, or couldn’t. I have an unreliable memory of trying to bite his hand.

Then the man who had chased my friend returned, bent down towards me, and said quite kindly: “Your friend’s fine, love. Don’t worry.” I weepily relinquished the plastic bag and watched as they ran off.

In books and films, people are often impulsively heroic; sometimes they are rational, sometimes very scared — I was just an addled, unhinged fool. I could have died for a hairbrush.
Competition 1
Five copies of The Unheard are up for grabs. Simply send the answer to the question below to before 11.59pm on Monday September 27. The winners will be selected at random.

What is the title of the first novel by Nicci French, published in 1997?
Star pick 2
★ Star pick
Next of Kin by Kia Abdullah
HQ, £14.99
An architect babysitting her nephew makes a tragic mistake. You can read James Owen’s review by clicking the link below:
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Kia Abdullah on the East End
In a piece specially written for Crime Club, Kia Abdullah (pictured) explains the irresistible menace of the East End.

East London, where I grew up, has “a bit of a reputation” – a polite way of saying it’s “grimy, crowded and plagued by crime”. In the 19th century, it was dubbed “darkest London”, home to notorious slums where the poor lived in ramshackle housing and the streets hummed with vice and crime. The chaos here spawned the first wave of serial killer hysteria (Jack the Ripper) and inspired a series of era-defining writers.

Charles Dickens describes the “crowded and filthy street[s]” of Mile End and the “slime and darkness” of Whitechapel. Of a pub in Limehouse — my childhood stamping ground — he writes: “Wilderness pressed so hard and close… as to leave the hostelry not an inch of ground beyond its door.”

It’s this wilderness that makes the East End such a compelling setting; the idea that anything, or everything, might happen to you — or indeed by your own hand. This is a place of duality, where hedonism and misery lurk cheek by jowl, a terra incognita for upstanding citizens.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde portrays the East End as a sordid playground. Gray visits “dreadful places near Blue Gate Fields” and is seen “slinking in disguise into the foulest dens in London”. Gray’s East End is one of opium dens and brothels, thieves, coiners and wayward seamen.

Today, there are few seamen here, but duality endures. The tension between good and evil, rich and poor, new and old offers a potent setting for contemporary novelists. In Turn a Blind Eye, the crime writer Vicky Newham describes a “noisy, crowded Tower Hamlets” where “crime, and fear of crime are key concerns for residents”. In The Waiter, Ajay Chowdhury describes a “sea of parkas, burqas, dashikis, saris”, a place of “chaos and confusion” that never stops changing.

This state of flux is why I chose the East End as the setting for Take It Back, my debut courtroom drama in which four Muslim boys are put on trial for raping a disabled white girl. The idea of duality — that none of us are all good or all bad — feeds perfectly into my theme. I return to the area in Next of Kin, my new courtroom drama, in which the celebrated architect Leila Syed leaves her nephew in her car for hours, on the hottest day of the year. She claims it was an accident, but is there more to this than meets the eye?

It’s this unholy trinity — of grime, vice and flux — that makes the menace of the East End so alluring. This is a place where villains and flawed heroes come to indulge their vices, where boundaries are broken and good names are sullied. Just as in the days of Dickens, “darkest London” is perfectly primed for crime.
Competition 2
Six copies of Next of Kin are up for grabs. Simply send the answer to the question below to before 11.59pm on Monday, September 27. The winners will be selected at random.

Who wrote Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994)?
Book 101
An occasional strand in which a crime writer selects the 101st title from their bookshelves and encapsulates it in 101 words. This week, JS Monroe, whose The Man on Hackpen Hill (Head of Zeus, £18.99), the third book to feature DI Silas Hart, has just been published, lands on John le Carré’s Big Pharma exposé, The Constant Gardener (Penguin, £8.95).

It feels like I grew up with John le Carré as a distant uncle who wrote to us regularly. Our family used to dissect his novels at the breakfast table. I listened in awe as my father unpicked plot twists with my elder brothers. And then I started to read them for myself. The Constant Gardener isn’t le Carré’s best book, but its exploration of Big Pharma corruption in Africa is still as pertinent today as it was in 2001, when it was published. The Covid pandemic has, temporarily, painted pharmaceutical companies as the good guys, but le Carré knew otherwise.
Picks of the week
Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Simon & Schuster, £14.99
Virgil Wounded Horse tries to keep the peace — usually with his fists — on the Rosebud Native American reservation in South Dakota. When someone plants drugs in his 14-year-old nephew’s school locker, and an FBI sting to catch the culprits is bungled, Virgil needs the help of his ex-lover Marie Short Bear, who believes in traditional ceremonies, to take on the baddies. This is a wayward debut, overstuffed with research in some parts and underwritten in others, that will nevertheless delight fans of the late, great Tony Hillerman. His series of novels featuring the Navajo Tribal Police have stood the test of time. Favourite line: “BANG!”
Find out more >
Safe at Home by Lauren North
Corgi, £7.99
Anxious Anna has three daughters. One October evening she makes the mistake of leaving 11-year-old Harrie alone in their lovely home in the country village of Barton St Martin. She returns to find Harrie covered in bruises and unwilling to explain how she got them. The next day a local businessman is reported missing. Could there be a connection? Lauren North’s fourth foray into psychological suspense is a nightmarish exploration of (partly justifiable) parental paranoia. Favourite line: “Then Harrie’s gaze finds the cage.”
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Daggers Drawn edited by Maxim Jakubowski
Titan, £17.99
An excellent collection of 19 stories that have all won the CWA’s Short Story Dagger. Some of the authors featured — Jerry Sykes, Peter Lovesey, Danuta Reah, Stella Duffy, Denise Mina and Ian Rankin — have won it twice. The others include Jeffery Deaver (The Weekender), Cath Staincliffe (Laptop) and John Harvey (Fedora). One for the Christmas list.
Find out more >
Page 99
Ford Madox Ford, friend of Joseph Conrad, novelist and literary critic, said: “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” Arbitrary, perhaps, but surprisingly accurate.

This week a steamy scene from down under in The Good Sister (Hodder & Stoughton, £7.99) by Sally Hepworth. Fern, a librarian and twin sister of the childless Rose, is sitting in the passenger seat of Wally’s van.

“Would you like to have sex with me?” I ask.

Wally freezes. It is, admittedly, a sizable deviation from my plan. For one thing, there are at least two days until I ovulate. For another, at least according to the romance novels I’ve read, when it comes to seducing men, there tends to be very little in the way of ascertaining of the other party’s interest. If the novels are anything to go by, sex is supposed to kick off with the hero crushing his lips against mine after doing something to upset me. So I watch Wally’s reaction with interest.

His eyes widen slightly and his lips part, but he doesn’t speak for some time. I am pleased with this reaction. I suspect I would have felt a little startled by the crushing lips. As he contemplates my request, I settle back into the cozy pod of the van with the darkness surrounding us. I am feeling something approaching relaxed… until a sudden pounding on Wally’s window sends us both flying off our seats.

“Do you have permission to have your van parked here? This is private property, you know.”

I recognize the voice as that belonging to my neighbor, Mrs Hazelbury. Through Wally’s window, I see that she’s dressed in her peach candlewick robe, holding it together with both hands at the throat. I can’t see from where I’m sitting but I’d hazard a guess she’s also wearing her matching slippers.

Wally rolls down his window and she peers into the van.

“Fern!” Mrs Hazelbury says. “There you are! I’ve been trying to get in touch with you all night.”
Last word
Birthday greetings to Stephen King (pictured), who is 74 today.

“The worst advice? Don’t listen to the critics. I think that you really ought to listen to the critics, because sometimes they’re telling you something is broken that you can fix.”

Image credit: Getty Images
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