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Friday 31 March 2017

Semtex in the tea

My wife Jennifer enjoys reading all kinds of books. One of her favourite series is by Gervase Phinn, The Little Village School novels. She has just finished reading the fifth, Secrets at the Little Village School (2016). Over the years, I’ve been apprised of several hilarious snippets so I hope at some point to read them too. They appear to be acute observations of the life and loves of teachers, parents, children, and village people in Barton-in-the-Dale.

To give you a flavour, here’s an extract from the start of Chapter 6:

Mrs Sloughthwaite was a mistress of the malapropism and the amazingly inventive non sequitur. She managed to mangle the English language like a mincer minced meat, often to the amusement of her customers. She would comment on the colourful enemas that flowered in the tubs by the village green, the Mongolian tree with the beautiful blossoms, the chameleon bush in the churchyard and the creeping hysteria that grew up the wall on the rectory. She would bemoan the fact that the lovely buddleia bush in her back garden was full of atheists. She would enquire of her clientele if they favoured semtex in their tea instead of sugar, if they wanted evacuated milk or the semi-skilled variety and if they preferred orgasmic vegetables instead of the ordinary sort.

 See his books on Amazon UK here

Saturday 25 March 2017

'The Oldest profession' - business competition

Starting on Monday (on ITV Encore) is an 8-part drama entitled Harlots. It’s set in eighteenth century Georgian London, a so-called family drama (as opposed to family-viewing drama).  Inspired by the stories of real women of the period, it follows Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and her daughters as she attempts to balance her roles of mother and brothel owner. Her business comes under attack from Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), a rival madam with a ruthless streak.

Competition between houses of ill repute is not new, of course. Coincidentally, I came across this item recently:

Aberdeen, Dakota Territory, 1890s.
The House of Adeline had been the only game in town for some time. Then an enterprising madam called Jewel hung up her shingle about a block away and vied for clients.

One day the working girls at Adeline’s nailed the door shut on one of the Jewel girls as she visited the outhouse – after throwing in a hornet’s nest. When the hapless girl was freed, she was badly stung and couldn’t work for a few days. Later, emboldened by this ‘success’ against the competition, Adeline’s girls then sneaked into Jewel’s back yard and put itching powder on the bedclothes drying on the line. Much cursing and scratching followed, and clients were lost.

Several days later, the Adeline madam didn’t get any customers for some days and wondered why, only then discovering that a quarantine sign for measles had been placed at the front door!

The two madams called a truce.

This is paraphrasing just one anecdote in a fascinating non-fiction history of prostitution in the American West – Upstairs Girls by Michael Rutter.  I’ll write a review of the book shortly.

Friday 24 March 2017

Give the police guns

The latest terrorist atrocity in Westminster rightly evoked anger, compassion for the injured and the bereaved families, and inevitably calls for all British police to be armed.
            This latter consideration strikes a memory chord. In my novel The Bread of Tears, my heroine Sister Rose dwells on that subject:

The Abbess was kneeling with her back to the door, praying in front of a rack of lit candles. She turned her head slightly towards me. ‘Please be patient, Sister Rose, while I finish my prayers for our dear Sister Leocritia.’ Her New York accent was still very strong even after many years in England.
            I nodded agreement and she turned back to the candles.
            When I joined Northumbria Police I was Maggie Weaver – though Mike called me Meggie – and I had still attended church services about once a month. For two years I was in their armed response unit and when I shot dead my first criminal – David Paul Duggan, a name I wouldn’t forget, it was like remembering your first love’s name – I lit a candle for him. At the time I had no doubt that as a multiple murderer he deserved to die, but I still hoped his soul might find peace. Then my weapon was seized and sealed for forensic checks and swabs impregnated with a chemical preservative were taken from my hair, face and hands and my clothing packaged and sealed. This was to verify that it was my bullet that took Duggan’s life; perhaps the rule-makers had seen the film The Man who shot Liberty Valance. I then waited for the inquiry to look into the shooting – self-defence, with two senior officer witnesses – losing my sleep and some weight in the process. When I was cleared, I was reassessed to remain an ‘authorised shot’.
            For my second killing – Morgan Sugden – I also lit a candle and offered a prayer. After more months of inquiry, I was in the clear again. At that point the post-traumatic stress was getting to me so it was mutually decided that I’d leave the ARU and continue my police work without a weapon.
            Even in these violent times, when thousands of British bobbies find themselves armed for one call-out or another, most gun-carrying police officers rarely draw their weapons and in fact do not kill many criminals. It was just my bad luck, to be in a situation where the gun was mightier than any words I could muster. I was commended on both occasions, because I saved other people by snuffing out the lives of two men, lives extinguished as easily as a candle.
            Some months later, I was chasing an armed robber, Bill Reavley, over the rooftops when he fell and was seriously maimed. That was the day when I decided to keep away from the church. I convinced myself that I could do without that added angst. The priest, Father Collins, telephoned me once, and then we lost contact. Staying away was easier than going back with excuses after a long lapse: that guilt thing again.
            If someone had told me then that I would become a nun, I’d have sent for the men in white coats.
            The Abbess stood and faced me, her large pectoral cross glinting in the candlelight. ‘I believe you neglected to turn the other cheek earlier this evening, Sister?’ Shining brown eyes sparkled, either with anger or amusement. I didn’t know which, though under the circumstances it was probably the former. (pp45-47)

The Bread of Tears

Available as paperback and Kindle on Amazon sites here

Before taking her vows, Sister Rose was Maggie Weaver, a Newcastle policewoman. While uncovering a serial killer, she suffered severe trauma, and after being nursed back to health she becomes a nun. In her new calling she is sent to London to run a hostel for the homeless. Here, she does good works, and also combats prejudice and crime.
            As she attempts to save a homeless woman from a local gang boss, events crystallise, taking her back to Newcastle, the scene of her nightmares, to play out the final confrontation against drug traffickers, murderers and old enemies in the police.
            She finds her spiritual self and a new identity. She is healed through faith and forgiveness. It’s also about her surviving trauma and grief – a triumph of the human spirit, of good over evil.

Some review excerpts

This is a gritty and at times downright gruesome thriller. Written in the first person, Morton has achieved a true sense of feminine appeal in Maggie, the narrator, and despite her religious calling, she comes over as quite a sexy woman… I found myself totally empathising with this full-blooded, gutsy woman... All the characters and horrific events in this crime thriller are extremely visual and well-drawn, making this a riveting read. It would make a brilliant TV series! – Jan Warburton, author of The Secret, A Face to Die For

… Don’t think that once you’ve recovered from the grim murders of the opening chapters you can settle down to a straightforward detection model… As sadistic as Hannibal Lector, this killer will scare you – be warned! – Maureen Moss, author of More to Life.

Nik Morton knows how to write a thriller. The characters are all well drawn, especially Sister Rose… There is a serial killer who will make your spine tingle in Jack the Ripper fashion... I think this is a first rate crime thriller, which also delivers a strong message. – Keith Souter, author of Murder Solstice

… The stuff of all male fantasies rolled into an incredible bundle. And what a novel! Mr Morton skilfully delivers a well-crafted thriller with more than a little intrigue, a love story in the making and some subtle twists from start to finish. The final fifty pages or so seemed to turn by themselves such was the pace of the climax of the story. I for one have fallen for this deep thinking female. – Ken Scott, author of Jack of Hearts, ghost-writer of Do the birds still sing in Hell?

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Book review - The Veteran

Frederick Forsyth’s collection of five stories, The Veteran (2001) is definitely worth reading. [Beware that there is a single story with this title on offer too, and some readers have been caught out by this.]

If you haven’t read his breakout novel The Day of the Jackal (1971) or any of his other works, you might not appreciate his writing style. He’s an ex-journalist, so his tales – long and short – are mostly ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ from a writing perspective. That doesn’t matter, however, as he’s an engrossing storyteller (that is, not a storyshower!)

Whatever profession he writes about – the law, espionage, customs and excise, piloting an airbus etc. – he provides a wealth of insider information that puts you there. It’s as if we’re reading a slightly intimate documentary.
‘The Veteran’ is about an old soldier who is mugged on the street in London. The police are fortunate: they have an eye-witness and soon arrest the alleged culprits, who are to be defended by the lawyer Slade at the expense of the tax-payers. It looks like an open-and-shut case; they’ll get banged up for some years, at least. And then a high-flying barrister gets wind of the case and offers his services pro bono. Although the subject matter is grim, we’re given plenty of amusing authorial asides, too: ‘… two local men who were “helping the police with their inquiries.” This is one of those much-used phrases comparable with hospital bulletins that describe people in absolute agony as being “comfortable”. It means the opposite and everyone knows it.’ (p34) Forsyth’s writing, despite being omniscient, generates anger at the thugs who attack the old man and evokes frustration at the slipperiness of practitioners of law. This is an excellent twist-ending story.

‘The Art of the Matter’ was previously published as a single Original story (2000), the title playing on words. We soon get to the heart of the matter when we realise that the impecunious bit-part actor Mr Gore and the knowledgeable art assistant Benny Evans are taken for a ride by the duplicitous Peregrine Slade at the auction firm of House of Darcy. Here, too, we have an artwork blurb being broken down into layman’s terms: ‘… would include phrases like “charming”, meaning “if you like that sort of thing”, or “unusual”, meaning “he must have done this after a very heavy lunch”.’ (p95) There must have been a fixation on the surname ‘Slade’ since this also features that moniker. A superb twist-ending con artist scam story.

‘The Miracle’ takes place in Siena in 1975 during the famous horse race. (The Stewart Grainger 1962 film The Swordsman of Siena depicts this well, in colour!) Two American tourists are accosted by a stranger who relates a compelling and poignant tale of the siege of the city at the close of the Second World War, and the miracle that occurred in the courtyard where they find themselves. This is virtually all narrative from the stranger, interspersed with journalistic descriptive observation of the horse race that has no bearing on the tale. I found this moving yet ultimately unsatisfactory; the ending left me feeling cheated, as one might feel when a tyro writer ends with ‘and then I woke up, it was all a dream’. A magical story, spoiled by a cynical manipulative ending. (It would have worked with a double-twist ending, I reckon…)

‘The Citizen’ gives us an insight into the life of an airbus pilot and a Customs officer. The twist ending didn’t quite work, I felt, as the author had blatantly misdirected the reader with one character. Interesting, nevertheless.

The fifth story is a novella, ‘Whispering Wind’ and this too was published separately as an Original single (2000). Forsyth tells us about frontier scout Ben Craig, 24, who survived the massacre of the Little Bighorn on 25 June, 1876. Intriguing. It begins realistically enough, with in-depth reportage of the events leading up to Custer’s defeat, introducing Ben, who witnesses the indiscriminate slaughter of an undefended Indian village. Ben is instrumental in saving the life of a squaw, Wind That Talks Softly. Forsyth’s realisation of the situation, his description of the cavalry and the characters is, as you’d expect, well researched. It would be unfair to relate more, save that though history tells us that there were no survivors at the battle, Ben survived to live another day – and that phrase is significant, as the tale has fantasy elements. This is a bitter-sweet love story, handled with aplomb, and is suspenseful right up to the end. Worth the purchase price of the book on its own.

If you like short stories, these fit the bill. If you prefer longer pieces, then ‘Whispering Wind’ will serve very well.

Since this release Forsyth has published four more novels and an autobiography.