“Why on earth am I here?” David wonders as he observes the juvenile antics of ex-classmates at the twenty-five year school reunion. Then he sees Bridget.
David draws up a list of all that he hopes to achieve to kick-start a new life now that his wife has moved in with his best friend – his ex-best friend. A relationship with Bridget is top of the list, opening an arts café is a close second.
Formidable women – an unfaithful wife, a reckless teenage daughter, a boss from hell, a disapproving policewoman – seem like insurmountable obstacles.
But it’s still OK to dream, isn’t it?
I don’t think I’m giving too much away to confess that I have a birthday coming up in the next couple of weeks. A “big” one. One with a zero at the end.
As it happens, it is a “big” birthday which puts me in close proximity to David, the lead character of ‘Dream Café’. Having decided against attending my own school reunion (to paraphrase a friend’s response, he’d rather defecate in his hands and clap) I really felt for the character as half remembered school contemporaries lunge at him as the novel opens.
As the book progresses, we learn that poor David has quite the complicated back story, with all sorts of unpleasant behaviour having been dealt to this rather nice, if vague, protagonist.
Personally, I think a nice romantic comedy which nips along with ease of reading and light touch charm and ‘Dream Café’ has this in abundance. David is a hero we can root for and, even including the necessary ups and downs which must befall all characters in this genre, it is comforting to know that all will – up to a point – turn out right with the world.
Incidentally, I too have a secret dream to abandon my career and relaunch ala David – but perhaps I’ll have to wait until nearer his age to do so 😉
Purchase Links –
Author Bio –
Richard writes under the pseudonym R J Gould andis a (rare male) member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA). His first novel was shortlisted for the Joan Hessayon Award following his participation on the RNA New Writers’ Scheme. Having been published by Headline Access and Lume Books, he now self-publishes.
He writes contemporary literary fiction about relationships, loosely though not prescriptively within the Romance genre, using both humour and pathos to describe the tragi-comic journeys of his protagonists in search of love. ‘Dream Café’ is his sixth novel, following ‘The Engagement Party’, ‘Jack and Jill Went Downhill’, ‘Mid-life follies’, ‘The Bench by Cromer Beach’ and ‘Nothing Man’. [It is a rewrite of ‘A Street Café Named Desire’].
Ahead of writing full time, Richard led a national educational charity. He has been published in a wide range of educational journals, national newspapers and magazines and is the co-author of a major work on educating able young people. He lives in Cambridge, England.
Between Stalin’s Englishman, The Mountbattons and now The Traitor King you have investigated and peeled away layers of the twentieth century British establishment. What do you think it is which attracts you to this sort of topic?
I’m interested in revisionist biography, taking a well-known subject and looking at them with a new angle – a portrait of a marriage as in The Mountbattens , the consequences of a seismic event such as the Abdication in the case of Traitor King – and based on fresh sources. That can be private archives or interviews with people who knew the subject but largely it depends on public archives and using FOI requests. This was crucial with regard to the Guy Burgess biography and, never a natural rebel, I was shocked by the way government departments failed to adhere to Freedom of Information requests or honour the various Public Record Acts. I became increasingly enraged by the lies and obfuscation but also the fact that cover ups have simply continued. The White Paper into Burgess & Maclean’s disappearance was known as the Whitewash Paper and I became increasingly interested in how the narratives were shaped by subject or government. This became very apparent with the way Mountbatten curated his life by cooperating with tame journalists and writers and denying access to anyone who might be sceptical of his PR line. It was a pattern repeated by the Windsors. For a biographer this is fascinating. Here’s the story they want you to believe , such as we lived happily ever after, and here’s the reality.
I understand that this might seem flippant, but I mean it seriously: how do you get the time? Not only to write, but also to do the archival research necessary to produce books of this level of detail, especially when maintaining a difficult day job and then mounting various campaigns.
It is time-consuming because, as you say, I spend a lot of time on research , which I do almost entirely myself unless another language is required, yet have a demanding day job representing some 200 authors as a literary agent. The answer is I work long hours every day and I work quickly. I tend to write the books in a few months without few revisions because my research is thorough and I know exactly how I’m going to tell the story. I think the fact that I write against tough deadlines gives a certain narrative pace to the books. The research has been particularly difficult for Traitor King because archives were closed and many remain so which is very frustrating but US archives, in particular, but also the Churchill College Archives in Cambridge, provided digital access .
What is a typical writing day for you? There is no typical day. About six months before the book is due, irrespective of where the research is because one can always do more, I sit down to aim to write 4-5,000 words, a chapter, each day. Usually that’s after a day’s work at the agency and I’ll write into the night. During this period I’ll try not to do agency work at weekends so I can have a clear two day run to immerse myself properly in the chapter. If I’m struggling at one point, I’ll just keep writing leaving a gap to be filled.The key is to keep putting words on the page even if it doesn’t look very fluent. One can always polish later.
As well as your writing and literary agency, you have been a vocal campaigner for Freedom of Information, counteracting measures by the UK government to destroy documents as well as latterly, for the University of Southampton to release the diaries of the Mountbatton. What are the latest on this and what can people do to help?
I feel very strongly that our history is being censored and we cannot tell the truth about the past unless we know the full picture. I’m very concerned that all the documents which by law should be in the National Archives – we now have a 20 year rule – are not there, that many are ‘temporarily retained’ by departments for years and when sent to the archives have been heavily weeded and that a high proportion of documents are destroyed without any record of their contents being kept.. Much of this has nothing to do with national security but rather with an over-cautious culture of secrecy in Whitehall and to cover up embarrassment. In this country the attitude of those dealing with research requests is ‘how can we keep this secret’, in the US it’s ‘how can I help you in your research’.
I’ve just mounted a six year campaign to ensure that the diaries and letters of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten, bought for £4 million with public monies or in lieu of tax on the basis they would be ‘available publicly to all’ , are released. The Information Commission ruled in 2019 that they should be opened but Southampton University and the Cabinet Office appealed and managed with excuses to delay a hearing until November this year. Their approach was to hope I would give up because my book was finished and that their pockets were deeper than mine. I refused to be bullied into submission. So far it has cost me £250,000 in legal fees – all my earnings and savings- so heaven knows what public funds were spent by the Cabinet Office.
In May this year, after another delaying tactic by Southampton and the Cabinet Office, I had to crowdfund another £50,000 to ensure I could go to the hearing. People, most of whom I didn’t know, contributed because they could see the important principles at stake – freedom of speech, access to archives, the abuse of State power.
A media and parliamentary campaign, alongside pressure from my lawyers, has meant that some diaries from 1920-1960 have been released but they have been redacted and there is no sign of the diaries to 1980 or the couple’s correspondence. There also remain missing files in the inventory in the Mountbatten papers and no sign of the Edwina-Nehru correspondence. Much still needs to be done and those interested can help by joining the Campaign for Freedom of Information, lobbying MPS, writing letters to the paper and sharing the various horror stories on social media.
I’m not a natural conspiracy theorist but the destruction of documents and the restrictions placed upon academics to access records does seem Kafkaesque in its sinister implications. How structured and explicit do you think these policies are?
I think it is very calculated. Freedom of Information officers in government departments are trained in how to use exemptions to deny access, they deliberately confuse requestors by changing reference numbers or simply don’t answer.The stock response from the Met asking for files on the inter-war period is they don’t know if they have them because almost a hundred years later they have still not been catalogued. We know for a fact that material going back to Victorian era is still held in the Hanslope archive outside London and it was only a court case that forced the Foreign Office to admit to the ‘migrated’ archive there relating to Mau Mau terrors of the 1950s. Another problem is the regulator for Freedom of Information, the Information Commissioner, reports to the Cabinet Office who are one of the worst offenders for failing to answer FOI requests. The Cabinet Office simply cuts the ICO budget so they can’t do their job properly.
The Government use the excuse of resources but I would suggest they use their resources to open up papers rather than suppress them – we know the QCs used by the Cabinet Office and Southampton in our hearing cost £33,000 for a few days’ work.
I’ve heard you speak elsewhere of the way there seems to be a two tier system for historians and researchers in this country. Those willing to “tow the line” rewarded with access to releases, advanced sight and invitations to events beneficial to them whilst others labelled “difficult” are excluded. Do you think this is still the case?
Absolutely and it refers to both archivists and writers. It is noticeable that the archivists with gongs are those who ‘cooperate’ with the Government and I know plenty of well-known historians who are convinced they will be enobled or knighted if they write supportive articles about the Royal Family, cosy up to the government of the day and diss anyone who takes a more independent line. It was revealing that no historian came out in support of my campaign to open the Mountbatten diaries for everyone though it went to the heart of historical scholarship. Nor incidentally did many of the organisations set up to support free speech, support writers or academic. The two exceptions were EnglishPen and the Royal Historical Society.
Where are you on choosing your next project?
I have started a new book but am keeping quiet about it. With Traitor King, I told one of my authors and he promptly went and tried to do it himself hence the need to deliver quickly.
Andrew Lownie was born in 1961 and was educated in Britain and America. He read history at Magdalene College, Cambridge where he was President of the Union. He went on to gain an MSc at Edinburgh University and spend a year at the College of Law in London. After a period as a bookseller and journalist, he began his publishing career as the graduate trainee at Hodder & Stoughton. In 1985 became an agent at John Farquharson, now part of Curtis Brown, and the following year became the then youngest director in British publishing when he was appointed a director. He set up the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency in 1988.
Since 1984 he has written and reviewed for a range of newspapers and magazines, including The Times, Spectator and Guardian, which has given him good journalistic contacts. As an author himself, most notably of a biography of John Buchan, a literary companion to Edinburgh and a prize-winning biography of the spy Guy Burgess, he has an understanding of the issues and problems affecting writers.
He has acted as the literary agent to the international writers’ organisation PEN. In 1998 he founded The Biographers Club, a monthly dining society for biographers and those involved in promoting biography, and The Biographers’ Club Prize which supports first-time biographers. He has had a regular advice column in the writing magazine Words with Jam, written the entries on submitting to agents for The Writers Handbook and The Writers and Artists Yearbook, contributed to The Arvon Book of Life Writing and regularly gives talks on aspects of publishing.
Drawing on extensive research into hitherto unused archives and Freedom of Information requests, it
makes the case that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were not the naïve dupes of
the Germans but actively intrigued against Britain in both war and peace.
‘Traitor King’ reveals the true story behind the German attempts to recruit the Duke as a British Pétain; the efforts, by
Churchill in particular, to cover this up; the reasons why the Duke, as Governor of the Bahamas, tried to shut down the investigation into the murder of a close friend, and shines light on the relationship between the Duke and Wallis, revealing it to be far from the love story it is often assumed to be.
Lownie’s previous book with Bonnier Books UK, ‘The Mountbattens’, was a ‘Sunday Times’ bestseller and a Waterstones Book of the Year. (Synopsis courtesy of http://www.bonnierbooks.co.uk)
“I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales” went the lyrics to the popular1927 song by Herbert Farjeonand Harold Scott, performed by Elsa Lanchester.
After reading this incendiary work of revisionist history, perhaps we need to rework the lyrics to read, “I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s compromised national security with the Prince of Wales.”
If, like me, most of your knowledge of Edward VIII is derived from fictional portrayals – Edward Fox in ‘Edward and Mrs Simpson’, Guy Pearce in ‘The King’s Speech’ – then I think it’s fair to say that you will almost certainly
be horrified by the portrait of Windsor which emerges in Andrew Lownie’s first class biography.
There are a number of reasons for this shock therapy for the reader. Firstly, Lownie – an accomplished literary agent
and power house behind several campaigns related to archives and freedom of information – is a powerhouse researcher. In this work he had gained access to previously unpublished memoirs by key characters in the narrative, as well as scoured the UK and US National Archives for previously unexplored resources.
Secondly, Lownie has an unparalleled knowledge and background with which to unpack his topic. His previous works: on Guy Burgess; on the Mountbattons and – to a lesser but relevant extent – John Buchan allow this Cambridge graduate to peel away the onion layers of how the British establishment really works and how it protects its own, obfuscates and evolves.
Finally, it deals with a clearly under explored aspect of this tale. Book of book, movie and TV show has dealt with the abdication – the run up to it, the emotional aftermath, the toll it took on the unsuspecting successor Bertie and his stoic daughter.
But little to nothing has been written of Edward and Wallis’ post-abdication roles. Along the way, he had uncovered enough salacious details of their sex lives to keep the most prurient reader happy whilst also painting a frankly horrifying portrait of the personalities of the two of the major figures of twentieth century history.
Edward emerges as a tone deaf man/child who literally could not be trusted. Secrets are shared with the Germans and his rampant anti-semitism continues, according to sources quoted here, throughout his entire life.
As Europe is falling and Hitler is sweeping away opposition, the nearly King embarks on his famous 1938 German Tour. “The couple arrived by train in Berlin at a station festooned with alternating Union Jacks and swastikas, to be met by Robert Ley, the head of the National Labour Front, [and] the foreign minister Ribbentrop.”
This is before we are treated the sheer tone deaf imagery of Edward and Simpson leacving for their “honeymoon in a convoy of cars to join the Simplon-Orient Express, which had been kept waiting for them. They were accompanied by Dudley Forwood, an attaché at the British Legation in Vienna… two cairn terriers, a pair of Scotland Yard detectives whose brief was as much to spy on as guard the Windsors, and 186 trunks and 80 additional items of luggage.” Modest, retiring and appropriate, they are not.
This is all rather good clean, if horrifying fun, but Lownie is not an author who allows his reader complacency.
Just as one has adapted to a former monarch gnashing his teeth abroad, surrounded by unwise companion, but a sort of exasperatingly neutered Charles II before you are treated to the emotional consequences of this collusion.
“Another day was spent in Dusseldorf for an industrial exhibit, where they toured a miners’ hospital and a concentration camp. Forwood later recalled, ‘We saw this enormous concrete building which, of course, I now know contained inmates. The duke asked, “What is that?” Our host replied, “It is where they store the cold meat.”’ Andrew Lownie has produced another first class piece of revisionist history which still contains the power to intrigue, shock and startle. If you read only one excoriating deconstruction of the power dynamics of the British state this year, make it this one.
Andrew Lownie was born in 1961 and was educated in Britain and America. He read history at Magdalene College,
Cambridge where he was President of the Union. He went on to gain an MSc at Edinburgh University and spend a year at the College of Law in London. After a period as a bookseller and journalist, he began his publishing career as the graduate trainee at Hodder & Stoughton. In 1985 became an agent at John Farquharson, now part of Curtis Brown, and the following year became the then youngest director in British publishing when he was appointed a director. He set up the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency in 1988.Since 1984 he has written and reviewed for a range of newspapers and magazines, including The Times, Spectator and Guardian, which has given him good journalistic contacts. As an author himself, most notably of a biography of
John Buchan, a literary companion to Edinburgh and a prize-winning biography of the spy Guy Burgess, he has an understanding of the issues and problems affecting writers.He has acted as the literary agent to the international writers’ organisation PEN. In 1998 he founded The Biographers Club, a monthly dining society for biographers and those involved in promoting biography, and The Biographers’
Club Prize which supports first-time biographers. He has had a regular advice column in the writing magazine Words
with Jam, written the entries on submitting to agents for The Writers Handbook and The Writers and Artists Yearbook,
contributed to The Arvon Book of Life Writing and regularly gives talks on aspects of publishing. (Biography courtesy of www.andrewlownie.co.uk)
You can read a review of Simon Conway’s new novel, ‘The Saboteur’ here
PAJNewman (PAJN): Jude Lyon is back and, once again, confronted with his nemesis Guy Fowle. I know last time you spoke about these characters representing your principled side and your inner psychopath and, this time out Fowle is even more dastardly than before. Do you see a long-term Bond/Blofeld, Smiley/Karla ying and yang relationship between these two?
Simon Conway (SC):It all depends whether one of them kills the other. I haven’t decided.
PAJN: Guy really is a villain – do you ever find yourself writing a chapter featuring him and think, “what’s wrong with me?!?” He certainly seems to be getting more evil as the books go on. I can’t see an emotional heart opening change in his behaviour any time soon but perhaps I’m being too harsh?
SC: Never. I refer you to the narrator of my second novel Rage who says: “There were so many things wrong with me I’d become frightened of drawing up a list of them, for fear of what I might learn.”
I like to believe in the possibility for redemption but for Guy Fowle it is hard to see what form that might take.
PAJN: The novel obviously has echoes of Covid with the vast majority of London being confined to their homes. Will Covid play a part in your future work do you think? And was it quite nice to play with parts of it, like the lockdown, but not have to deal with the dreary reality so much.
SC: I think that there is a place for COVID drama but I’m not sure that it’s what my readers are looking for. If it plays a part in my writing it will either to be through deliberate echoes – empty streets, deserted airports and overcrowded hospitals – or as a recent historical event.
PAJN: When we spoke last, you had taken about 18 months to write The Stranger. This novel is appearing much sooner and a great chunk of it was (I believe) written in combat zones. Would you mind speaking a little about how that works for you and how you manage to concentrate when doing such a difficult and dangerous day job?
SC: It’s not easy to balance a job that would consume very waking hour if you let it and the dogged business of writing novels. When it works, writing is a good way of switching off and relaxing. When it doesn’t, I can go days or weeks without writing and I feel like I’ve become slack and unmoored. I am fortunate that my job has allowed me to travel to some very interesting locations and meet memorable people. It is clear that has influenced my writing.
I did some of the final edits of The Saboteur in the evenings when I was in Libya last October. It’s not safe to go out at night so perfect for editing.
PAJN: In terms of Jude and Guy, do you think they will be back for a third outing? If so, do you have anything planned yet or are you working on anything different at the moment.
I’m working on a third instalment.
PAJN: The Saboteur is (I think this is correct) your seventh novel. Are you finding it easier to write as you get further in or is each a challenge in a different way?
SC: Yes, I think that it is becoming easier to write. I’m more confident of my skill. I spend less time agonising over the edit and as a consequence I’m more assured with the knife.
PAJN: The Stranger garnered some outstanding reviews and this must have been really pleasing. Has that changed how you approached the sequel and are you now under greater pressure for this instalment?
SC: I suppose I feel some pressure to keep up the pace.
Simon Conway has worked for The Halo Trust since 1998 clearing landmines all over the world.
PAJN: Does seeing landmines which have been placed indiscriminately by both governments and non-state actors, sometimes just to terrorise a populace, colour your view of human nature? Can you maintain a positive view of the world with the things you see in this role?
SC: It’s not an easy question to answer. By nature, I’m an optimist. I believe that it is possible to make the world better with sustained effort. I’ve seen evidence of that but my writing seems to tap into a more cynical and world-wearier vein. I worry that most people would burn their neighbour’s house down if goaded into it. That’s why those in power carry such a huge responsibility not to feed peoples’ worst prejudices.
PAJN: June this year saw an appalling loss of life in your team in Afghanistan. I was obviously so sorry to read about it and can only imagine how difficult it must have been. Is there anything practical that readers of yours can do to help and how are things out there now?
SC: In June this year eleven of my colleagues died in an attack on a remote demining camp in Baghlan Province. Later Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack although it was more likely an armed robbery that went wrong.
We are all very concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and the safety of the two and half thousand HALO staff there, however we have been clearing mines and saving lives in Afghanistan for thirty years, including under Taliban rule, and we have weathered tough times before. Just because we don’t have troops there anymore doesn’t mean that the west can just give up on Afghanistan. No good will come of that. It is important that our government recognises that. Tell your MP!
Slightly less serious questions:
PAJN: What colour is Monday?
SC: Monday is blue, obvs
Who had the idea of coming up with a whisky to go with the advanced reader copies? Because it’s a superb idea!
SC: My editor at Hodder, Nick Sayers, is responsible for the whisky. He is being mysterious about how he acquired them.
PAJN: Last time I asked you what was the question you wished interviewers and readers would ask but never do and your answer was “is it possible to entertain and inform”. Has lockdown and the success of The Stranger altered the questions you get asked and how readers treat you?
SC: I have no idea why I thought that was a good question. I certainly don’t know the answer.
Simon Conway is a former British Army officer and international aid worker. He has cleared landmines and the other debris of war across the world.
As Co-Chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition he successfully campaigned to achieve an international ban on cluster bombs.
He is currently working as Director of Capability for The HALO Trust.
He lives in Edinburgh with his wife the journalist and broadcaster Sarah Smith. He has two daughters. (Biography courtesy of http://www.simonconwaybooks.com)
You can read an exclusive Q&A session with Simon Conway here
The terrorist Guy Fowle has escaped from prison.
Jude Lyon of MI-6 has been saved from a Syrian ambush by his lover – and enemy? – Julia Ermolaeva.
A mysterious Russian has been murdered in London and his thumb cut off.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has made an unfortunate social connection at a party, which he hopes he can keep secret.
And suddenly, the world is literally going up in flames.
Jude needs to start putting together the pieces of this jigsaw and quickly, because someone is putting into play a terrifying Russian plan to disable and destroy the UK. Once it has begun, it is designed to be impossible to stop.
Bad enough if that someone is the Russian government. Worse if it is the psychopathic genius Fowle, otherwise known as The Stranger. (Synopsis courtesy of www.hachette.co.uk)
When I reviewed Conway’s initial instalment in this series, ‘The Stranger’ in August 2020, I wrote that it “should propel Conway into the very first rank of thriller writer’s working today.”
I went on to include Conway amongst the top triumvirate of thriller writer’s working today alongside Charles Cummings and Jeremy Duns. Unarguably, ‘The Saboteur’ both confirms this position and propels him further to the very pinnacle of espionage writer’s working today.
Conway’s plot begins in the aftermath of the destruction wrought by psychotic sociopath Guy Fowle on an unprepared London at the end of ‘The Stranger’.
After a daring escape, Fowle manages to get hold of a Russian Doomsday teeing up the most deadly of foes to continue wreaking havoc and also setting up a confrontation with the ying to his yang, our own damaged hero, Jude Lyon.
The main characters of ‘The Saboteur’ are drawn into an exciting death waltz, like John Le Carre’s Smiley and Karla filtered through a big budget Hollywood action thriller from the good old days when Tony Scott was tilting cameras and spraying bullets around.
There is also more crash, bang, wallop than in the first novel too, for those who enjoy that sort of thing. The original outing was a slow burn with a horrifying twist of explosive violence spattered throughout it: this adventure sees reams of blood flowing from day one with Lyon struggling against a ruthless enemy and almost all the decks stacked against him.
Conway’s background allows him to write about the violence with predictably bone-jarring verisimilitude but – and perhaps more importantly from a character development and depth of reading enjoyment point of view – is equally strong on the aftermath of terrible acts on people forced to endure unimaginable suffering.
This is quite simply the spy thriller release of the year so far and I strongly urge you to get hold of a copy as soon as you can.
If you are interested in learning more about Simon Conway, you can read an exclusive Q&A with the author here.
For those keen to know more about Neil Lancaster and Dead Man’s Grave, Neil kindly agreed to speak to me about his writing routine and this latest book. You can find the interview here:
This grave can never be opened. The head of Scotland’s most powerful crime family is brutally murdered, his body dumped inside an ancient grave in a remote cemetery.
This murder can never be forgotten. Detectives Max Craigie and Janie Calder arrive at the scene, a small town where everyone has secrets to hide. They soon realise this murder is part of a blood feud between two Scottish families that stretches back to the 1800s. One thing’s for certain: it might be the latest killing, but it won’t be the last…
‘“Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore, it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell,”’ she said, dryly, as she got out of the car.
‘Sorry?’ said Max.
‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you know, Sherlock Holmes. That’s from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches. Have you read it?’
‘I only read books with exploding helicopters on the front cover,’ said Max, shaking his head.”
One of the best compliments I can pay Dead Man’s Grave by Neil Lancaster is that I’m fairly certain that lead detective Max Craigie would not enjoy it. No exploding helicopters, far too little of the Rambo on the run which people might expect from this genre.
Lancaster has made a name for himself as a writer of kick ass thrillers with fast paced plotting and bone crunching action. And his biography does suggest that, more than most writers, he has the experience to back this up.
Armed Forces background, surveillance and undercover work for the Met and now successful thriller writer based in the Highlands. His debut novel featuring, ‘Going Dark’ was part of a trilogy featuring Tom Novak, a man who seemed in capable of not being chased by various Eastern European mafia hoods and corrupt law enforcement officers.
This time out we have Max Craigie, a former soldier struggling with PTSD and recently moved from London to Scotland under a cloud with a fatal shooting on his record.
When a prominent gangster disappears near a creepily titled grave in the Badlands of Caithness, it isn’t long before Craigie and other outsider from the squad, Janie, is sent to get involved.
Lancaster manages to twirl this plot on a sixpence with no warning for the reader and this is a really attractive trait for the reader. Expectations are dashed at every turn and, for readers who have enjoyed the Tom Novak series, whilst there are similarities between Craigie and Novak – both military men, both are or have worked in the Met, both have ties to Scotland – here the character of Craigie is more cerebral, more open to human relationships and more easily likeable than the sociopathic here of the ‘Going…’ series.
The other aspect of this new series of novels which demonstrate the evolution of Lancaster as a master craftsman is the humour. Whilst plot is clearly where this author lives, funny interchanges between Craigie, Janie and their foul mouthed but essentially cheery boss, Ross, are handled with aplomb.
“‘What’s your instinct on this one?’ Ross asked.
‘No, I want you to bloody lie to me, you daft twat. Stop pissing about.’”
For my money, this is the funniest novel in terms of character relationships outside another crime writer with a Black Isle connection, Ian Rankin.
And, it would appear that I am not alone in my appreciation of the novel. While I was halfway through my advanced copy, it was announced that Dead Man’s Grave had been long listed for the coveted McIlvanney Prize from Bloody Scotland. This puts Lancaster alongside luminaries such as Val McDermid, Chris Brookmyre, Stuart MacBride and Denise Mina which is the right company for any crime writer, I’d have thought!
My only complaint on that score is that I’ve been a reader for that award since the inaugural year and I rarely get a novel as good as this.
In conclusion, Dead Man’s Grave is a fine introduction to a series and packed with plot twists, enjoyable characters and the verisimilitude of the author’s experience make this a fine addition to the Tartan Noir canon.
Neil Lancaster joined the RAF in 1983 and served as a Military Policeman for six years, in the UK, Germany, Cyprus and the Falkland Islands, mostly as a patrol dog handler.
In 1990 he joined the Metropolitan Police where he worked in a number of roles as a Detective investigating the most serious of crimes in the capital and beyond. He was a covert policing specialist using all sorts of tactics to obtain evidence against murderers, human traffickers, drug dealers and fraudsters.
Since leaving the Met in 2015 he has lived in the Scottish Highlands where he now writes crime and thriller novels alongside work as a broadcaster and commentator on true crime documentaries. (Biography courtesy of www.neillancastercrime.co.uk)
‘The Gilded Cage on the Bosphorus’ by Ayşe Osmanoğlu
Brothers bound by blood but fated to be enemies. Can their Empire survive or will it crumble into myth?
Since his younger brother usurped the Imperial throne, Sultan Murad V has been imprisoned with his family for nearly thirty years.
The new century heralds immense change. Anarchy and revolution threaten the established order. Powerful enemies plot the fall of the once mighty Ottoman Empire. Only death will bring freedom to the enlightened former sultan. But the waters of the Bosphorus run deep: assassins lurk in shadows, intrigue abounds, and scandal in the family threatens to bring destruction of all that he holds dear…
For over six hundred years the history of the Turks and their vast and powerful Empire has been inextricably linked to the Ottoman dynasty. Can this extraordinary family, and the Empire they built, survive into the new century?
Set against the magnificent backdrop of Imperial Istanbul, ‘The Gilded Cage on the Bosphorus’ is a spellbinding tale of love, duty and sacrifice.
Evocative and utterly beguiling, ‘The Gilded Cage on the Bosphorus’ is perfect for fans of Colin Falconer, Kate Morton and Philippa Gregory.
I’ve never been to Turkey properly. I once went via Istanbul’s airport to transfer flights – it was the middle of the night and my main memory is of neon lights, 24-hour shopping and some beautiful marble floors.
But I have spent some time in the Islamic world and can tell you this: the history and culture of that religion, the misunderstandings of majority of the West and the complexity, beauty and the history which flows from the Ottoman Empire is well worthy of anyone’s time.
Ayşe Osmanoğlu has produced an absolutely fascinating account of a period which I didn’t know anything about. I love reading and learning and I particularly love it when it builds upon some scant knowledge I have of a complicated subject.
Osmanoğlu has picked a period just as the world pivots on its axis. Sultan Murad V is imprisoned by his brother in the eponymous gilded cage on the Bosphorus but what adds spice to this version of the true life event is that Osmanoğlu is writing about her own family.
This makes ‘The Gild Cage on the Bosporus’ unique, to the best of my knowledge. There are many historical novels, obviously, but there are few which blend fact with fiction and with emotive family issues woven through the narrative.
Osmanoğlu writes as though she is projecting herself back the 120 or so years to the crucible of a moment which will have profound effects on the geo-political map and her own familial destiny.
It is a journey I am grateful to have joined her on.
Author Bio – Ayşe Osmanoğlu is a member of the Imperial Ottoman family, being descended from Sultan Murad V through her grandfather and from Sultan Mehmed V (Mehmed Reşad) through her grandmother. After reading History and Politics at the University of Exeter, she then obtained an M.A. in Turkish Studies at SOAS, University of London, specialising in Ottoman History. She lives in the UK with her husband and five children.
Lord Aldermaston’s having a bad day. A falling hanging-basket has killed the town’s mayor, and a second narrowly missed him. His wife wants him to build her new greenhouse in three days, and some nutter is sending him death threats.
This isn’t the quiet life he expected as the new Marquess of Mortiforde.
It’s the annual Borders in Blossom competition, and Mortiforde is battling with Portley Ridge in the final. But this is no parochial flower competition. The mayor’s mishap looks like murder, and there’s another body in the river. Someone desperately wants Portley Ridge to win for the fifteenth successive year.
So when a mysterious group of guerrilla gardeners suddenly carpet bomb Mortiforde with a series of stunning floral delights one night, a chain reaction of floral retaliation ensues.
Can Aldermaston survive long enough to uncover who is trying to kill him, and why? And can he get his wife’s greenhouse built in time?
My god, did I enjoy this novel. I like a cheeky cozy crime at times and I read the synopsis and thought, I have to get myself some of that. But it far exceeded my expectations.
Blooming Murder is, essentially, what would happen if Gardener’s World had an illicit love child by Midsomer Murders via the work of Tom Sharpe. And it’s all the better for it.
Whaley is clearly an accomplished writer and has a strong track record of non-fiction. His first foray into the fantastical has clearly given him licence to run wild. In the afterwards, he notes that there is a version of this nearly 40,000 words longer – he was right to cut and, in future, could potentially prune the buds of his ambition even further.
But this is a minor quibble – local mayors are being dunted on the head by descending hanging baskets, a newly appointed Lord of the Manor is struggling to come to terms with his new position in village life and his wife is chopping up his camouflage netting and disappearing at all times of the day and night.
With bodies dropping like flies, a competitive flower competition and sexually voracious horticultural judges parading around, Blooming Murder skips along reaching a crescendo of exceptionally entertaining mayhem.
I, for one, can’t wait to read any subsequent outings in the Marquess of Mortforde Mystery series as and when they come. If you like your aristocrats eccentric and your cottage cheese in a very unsual serving suggestion, this novel is for you.
Author Bio – Simon Whaley is an author, writer and photographer who lives in the hilly bit of Shropshire. Blooming Murder is the first in his Marquess of Mortiforde Mysteries, set in the idyllic Welsh Borders – a place many people struggle to locate on a map (including by some of those who live here). He’s written several non-fiction books, many if which contain his humorous take on the world, including the bestselling One Hundred Ways For A Dog To Train Its Human and two editions in the hugely popular Bluffer’s Guide series (The Bluffer’s Guide to Dogs and The Bluffer’s Guide to Hiking). His short stories have appeared in Take A Break, Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special, The Weekly News and The People’s Friend. Meanwhile his magazine articles have delighted readers in a variety of publications including BBC Countryfile, The People’s Friend, Coast, The Simple Things and Country Walking.
Simon lives in Shropshire (which just happens to be a Welsh Border county) and, when he gets stuck with his writing, he tramps the Shropshire hills looking for inspiration and something to photograph. Some of his photographs appear on the national and regional BBC weather broadcasts under his BBC WeatherWatcher nickname of Snapper Simon. (For those of you who don’t know, they get a lot of weather in Shropshire.)
The daylight is ending as I return to the shop, the dregs of the sun in the top windows of the taller building opposite. I let myself in with the key handed back to me with my personal belongings yesterday. A brown-box time capsule, too big for my belongings. My watch, the keys, and a couple of pounds in loose change. I have the clothes I’m standing in, and my life in my pocket.
I’m surprised the key fits. My life had changed so little in prison, it left me imagining the rest of the world spinning away from me. In reality, not much has altered here either.
I expect an empty shop; the rolls of cloth sold, the buttons lost, the shop fittings looted. Brace myself for dust and dirt and the death of this place an equivalence of my mother. Instead, it manages to rescue what little light is hanging around at this hour to shine with the electric rainbow of brilliant material stacked with clashing disregard. From floor to ceiling, the shelves hold the history of her life here. She floated around the rest of the building like she didn’t quite fit, yet her feet anchored themselves here. She had lifted the rolls deftly without concern for their bulk, rolled and worked on the cutting table with swift confidence. When I was small, I liked to come here and sit on the stool behind the counter while the shop lived its life. Or I had until the teenage world called and I ceded the seat to Sam.
The wooden till drawer under the counter is empty.
The kitchen in the ground floor wing on the back of the building is small and basic. It exists behind the curtain of the shop theatre, and has therefore been accorded less attention. It had once been my favourite space, so much had gone on here. Long talks and raucous laughter. The cold, damp bathroom beyond the kitchen remains my least favourite place.
The cream enamel oven is a freestanding unit she bought on tick, cheerfully tripping to the Gas office once a month to make the hire purchase payment and get her book stamped. A rectangle of fifteen red quarry tiles is set on the floor in front of it. I’m better able to imagine the glass dish she once dropped and smashed than to picture her kneeling on the floor with her head inside trying to bring her life to an end. Any image of her refuses to form.
I fill the steel kettle from the cold tap hanging from the wall above the square sink and plug it in. The cutlery, crockery, and the coffee are in their place. There’s little in the fridge, and what’s there has turned. I empty the milk into the sink and the food into the bin.
I go upstairs to the other place we congregated, the small corner on the first-floor landing with the ragged sofa in front of the spindly-legged television. I recall her watching the old black and white whilst sitting amongst a mound of sewing. A newer colour television sits outside of her room in front of the now more-ragged sofa.
We had come and gone from here as a family, while the layout prevented us living as such.
Her bedroom is shadowed yellow from a sun at dusk sky, and I turn on the weak ceiling bulb. The room is unchanged. The familiar big flowered wallpaper, and the vaguely complementary pulled taut orange candlewick bedspread. The faded-lime carpet had been old when I was a child. A dress and a coat on hangars are hooked over the wardrobe door, open because it’s overfull. An emerald green dress lies across the foot of the bed, as if she selected it for her own laying out. The dressing table is as cluttered as I remembered. The room as if she stepped out moments ago.
The suitcase on top of her wardrobe contains the clothes I left behind. Only clothes. I told her to get rid of everything else. Fresh starts demand such decisions, and she promised. She understood my life hadn’t been one of sentiment.
Lara’s bedroom on the back of the house overlooks the neighbours’ shadowed rear yards. What’s left of the daylight helps make out the neat flower borders of the wool shop, and the stacked marble and granite of the Stonemason’s. Beyond, is an enclosed wasteland of tufted grass, mounded mud, and broken concrete. A dangerous playground, or potential money-spinner? The reason Freeman wants the shop.
On her bedside table an open book lies face down. Crossing the Water. On the plain white wall above the bed is pinned a film poster of The Exorcist. On the adjacent inner wall an Aladdin Sane poster partially covers a Bay City Rollers one. The shift from unembarrassed child to self-conscious teen. The single wardrobe holds some clothes. This room is less occupied than the other.
Her record player is on the floor beneath the window. Half a dozen albums lean against the wall, kept in place by a small tower of 45’s. On the turntable is a warped and dusty Chi-Lites single. I close the lid to prevent more dust spoiling the machine.
I don’t go into the windowless attic room, taking it all in from the doorway. I try not to see the small access door to the eaves, but I can’t not. It’s occupied my mind for too many years.
It’s Sam’s room now. With the ceiling too steeply pitched for a wardrobe, the furniture is a chest of drawers poorly painted in purple, and an unmade mattress on the floor. Above the dresser are a few ragged images badly torn from magazines; A Clockwork Orange, Slade, Roxy Music. The walls are time-spoiled white, the inner wall half painted in a deep red gloss. The manic brushstrokes peter out halfway to the door, as if whoever has ill-preparedly run out of paint, or grown bored with the effort. Either likely with Sam.
I choose Lara’s bed. The least poor choice. I like the block of darkness of the huge furniture store in the street beyond the open land. A high plain wall not unlike the outer bulwark of a prison. I appreciate the absence of noise. Freedom has vanquished the night shouts and the background hysterics of incensed men.
I leave the curtains, allowing the poor light from a small-town to channel across the backyards and into the room. I open the window onto the sultry night. The heady build of heat through a long dry summer has made rain a stranger, and I long for its return, ache for a refreshing downpour.
The empty drawers in Sam’s room, and the missing clothes from this one, suggests they’ve moved out. I presume the absence of life means they’re with their father.
I’d spent nine years among the vilest of men. Yet I’d never experienced the level of terror in prison that had been generated by the man I’d grown up with. A man worse than any of them. Coming home means facing him. I’ll go in the morning.
You can read a review of SR Wilsher’s novel ‘Mint’ here
Recently, I wrote a review of Simon Conway’s latest novel, ‘The Stranger‘. I was so impressed with the book, I tracked Mr Conway down and asked him for some further information. He graciously agreed.
PAJNewman (PAJ): Jude Lyon is a brilliant character. I notice from my research that there might be some similarity between yourself and Jude in terms of military history and well-travelled childhood. Was this biographical echoing the starting point for the book or was it the themes and issues which drew you to this particular story?
Simon Conway (SC): I’m glad you like Jude. I’m fond of him too. I wouldn’t say he was the starting point though. My characters tend to grow and morph in the telling. They definitely get more autonomous with every draft. Both main characters have a military background and I think that neither of them was an easy fit in the army just as I wasn’t. In Jude I have channelled my principled side but in Guy Fowle I’ve unleashed my inner psychopath.
PAJ: How do you feel that this novel stacks up against your previous work? Are you pleased with it?
SC: I’m satisfied and I’ve been gratified by the very positive response from early readers. I’d say that there has been a gradual improvement in my writing with more show and less tell. I’ve been trying to adhere to George Orwell’s six tips for writing from his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” – never use a long word where a short one will do; if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, which you are used to seeing in print, etc. That’s a good discipline for writing.
PAJ: How long did the book take from beginning to end to write?
SC: It was about eighteen months from beginning to end and then some tinkering at the copy edit stage. And then a delay in publication die to the pandemic. I’m glad to have reached this moment…
PAJ: The Iraq invasion obviously casts a long shadow over this novel, do you feel this is going to be an issue which we ever resolve as a democracy? Do you feel it still plays into our relationship with terrorism in the UK today?
SC: I think that if we are going to occupy countries in the name of protecting their populace or delivering democracy and freedom, we need to get a hell of a lot better at it and we need to recognise that it is a long-term commitment that lasts for decades.
There is no easy exit strategy. The shadow of the Iraq war is a long one: the chaos that it created fatally poisoned the New Labour project and it has a de-stabilising effect across the region, spurring the growth of Islamic State and allowing Iran to extend its influence.
The images from Abu Ghraib and the illegal rendition programme radicalised a generation of young Muslims. The collapse of Syria has led to one of the largest refugee crises ever. We bear some responsibility and we have to own up to that.
PAJ: At the moment, do you think The Stranger is going to be a standalone or do you envisage this as the beginning of a new series?
SC: You’ll definitely be reading more about Jude Lyon. There’s plenty still to be revealed.
PAJ: Who are your biggest influences as a writer?
SC: I read widely and across genres. I’ve certainly been influenced by some of the big beasts of modern American literature – Norman Mailer, Robert Stone, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Pynchon. Contemporary writers that I enjoy include Nick Harkaway, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Chris Beckett, Paul McAulay and Louise Welsh.
In my own genre, John Le Carré, Martin Cruz Smith and Graham Greene are heroes. For the Stranger, I wanted to write a classic thriller and Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal was a significant influence in that in that it builds towards a single attack and you have the juxtaposition of the increasingly desperate manhunt and the villain’s methodical preparations.
PAJ: What inspired your move into the military after you finished your degree at Edinburgh?
SC: After I left university, I was working in a night club in New York and trying to write a novel. I wrote 28 pages in a year which is pretty poor. I needed discipline. Many of the writers that I respected had served in the military or seen conflict. So, on a whim, I shaved my head and joined the army. One thing that surprised me was the number of other soldiers I met who also had a problem with authority.
I was living in Lebanon as a child a particularly formative experience that resonates through this novel? I can’t help feeling like the Middle East is represented in an affectionate and nuanced way in the novel.
I am very fond of the Middle East. It has so many intelligent and articulate people let down by bad government and lousy politicians. Some of my earliest memories are of Syria and Lebanon and it is a tragedy what has happened to those places. In 1976 I was on holiday with my parents in Syria. I persuaded them to buy me a Syrian army uniform and I wore it as we crossed back into Lebanon. The Syrian army invaded Lebanon a few hours later. I was the first across the line!
I’ve been back to both countries, to Lebanon in 2006 after the south was pummelled with several million cluster munitions and to Syria in 2015 after Islamic State left behind huge quantities of improvised explosive devices across the north east.
PAJ: Was the war in Syria at the forefront of your move into working with Article 36?
SC: My position on the board of the weapons control organisation Article 36 grew out of my part in the campaign to ban cluster munitions. Article 36 of the Geneva conventions, which the organisation was named for, require states to consider the impact on civilians of their weapons before they use them. When you look at the devastated cities of a country like Syria you can see that its rulers either don’t care about the effect of their weapons on ordinary people or are deliberately, maliciously targeting them.
PAJ: Would you like to speak about your work with HALO? Where are we as a nation with regard to refugees and the fall out from the conflict in Syria in your opinion? What can people who want to help do? What is the best link or course of action which people could access?
SC: My role within The HALO Trust is to start projects in new countries which means I am usually the first person on the ground, getting to know the power brokers on the ground and negotiating access. Since 2015, the focus of my efforts has been clearing the debris of war in the Middle East and I have established new projects in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. The devastation in urban areas and the industrial-scale use of improvised explosive devices by Islamic State and other armed groups pose particular risks to clearance operators.
Once the projects are set up and running, I hand them off to my colleagues to run. Currently I still retain command of our Libya programme, where we have an in-country team who are having to deal with an ongoing conflict with rapidly shifting front lines and multiple outside actors including Turkey, Russia, UAE and Egypt. The team are currently surveying booby-trapped front lines in the south of the capital Tripoli which were abandoned by Russian mercenaries from the private military company Wagner Group.
We are doing a lot to help. The taxpayers of western nations are incredibly generous through the aid and assistance that they provide. The UK is world leader in the delivery of aid and we should be proud of that. People need to recognise that helping to create stability abroad is a vital investment that helps keeps us safe at home.
Keeping pressure on the politicians to use our aid money wisely and strategically is of course vital and I think we should be directing more of it towards resolving conflict. I also think we need to do close the tax havens which allow corrupt rulers to steal and stash away the wealth of developing nations. There’s no point giving with one hand if we’re accepting dirty money with the other.
PAJ: What is the question you wish interviewers and readers would ask but never do?
SC: Is it possible to both entertain and inform? I think so, if it’s deftly done without ramming the information down the reader’s throat. I hope that readers enjoy The Stranger but also come away with a greater understanding of some of the more lawless corners of the world.
Thanks so much to Simon for speaking to me. ‘The Stranger’ is available here and at all good bookshops (and, presumably, some average ones too). Simon’s website is here. Simon can be found on Twitter here and you can hear more from the man himself from our friends over at Spybrary here.