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Stanwegian (Tyneside, England)

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Dark Room
Dark Room
by Steve Mosby
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dark, perhaps, but definitely intriguing., 14 Nov. 2013
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This review is from: Dark Room (Hardcover)
As will be evident from the date of this review, I'm a late arrival on the Mosby scene. Even then, I arrived by an indirect route. A month or two ago I read and enjoyed `The Backs', the latest novel in the Cambridge series written by Alison Bruce. Emblazoned across the front cover, in the manner beloved of fiction publishers, was the legend `A superb writer - Steve Mosby'. This sort of endorsement is usually provided by widely known writers or extracted from favourable press reviews of previous novels, but I knew nothing about Steve Mosby; the obvious inference was that there was a gaping hole in my literary awareness which I ought to plug without delay. Out with the credit card, log in to Amazon, and Dark Room was soon landing on my doormat.

So, unlike most other reviewers, I came to the novel with no preconceptions, and I have to admit that my first impressions were not particularly favourable. I've spent a large part of my life ploughing through tedious legal and technical prose and, unsurprisingly, my preferred relaxation reading tends to be at the opposite end of the spectrum. I've been an avid reader of crime fiction for years, with a fondness for puzzles in the Colin Dexter mould or fairly laid-back police procedurals from writers in the tradition of John Harvey or Ian Rankin. It was clear from the jacket notes that `Dark Room' fell within the sub-genre described as `crime noir'. That's not really my scene; I prefer my noir to stay firmly among the lighter shades of battleship grey - but, having paid out good money for the book, my Scottish ancestry obliged me to read it, and in the event I'm very glad to have done so. The five stars I have awarded translate in Amazon-speak as `I loved it'. I didn't love it - I'm not even sure that I liked it - but I have no doubt that it makes a significant and original contribution to the world of crime fiction, and anything less than five stars would be an undervaluation.

The core plotline isn't new; it was used by Agatha Christie well over half a century ago, and it may not have been original even then. But Christie was never like this! The reader is drawn in by a series of separate and apparently unrelated threads. The prologue is set in an interview room, where a small boy is being patiently encouraged to describe a crime he may or may not have witnessed; the nature of the crime isn't specified, but it was clearly horrific. The first chapter introduces the investigators, Detectives Andy Hicks and Laura Fellowes, called to a murder scene on a run down and poverty-stricken housing estate; the victim a hard-working young woman with her face beaten to a pulp. Shortly afterwards a vagrant is found dead in a similar condition, and the body count continues to rise; the reader is prepared for this by the back of the book jacket, which reproduces a letter subsequently sent to Hicks - we thus know from the outset that we are dealing with an apparently random serial killer. Later chapters introduce `The General', an obsessive but anonymous character who is clearly the author of the letter mentioned above, and Levchenko, the enigmatic candle-maker. All of these threads develop and entwine, though with unexpected diversions creating patterns which seem almost as random as the victims of the killer. In the end, though, there is a resolution - this is not one of those pretentious novels which leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

Satisfying though the plot development may be, what raises this novel above the competition is the quality of the writing. Mosby creates an almost tangible atmosphere of unease and uncertainty, sometimes menacing but always disconcerting. We are deprived of points of reference in both time and space. The location is never identified, and such clues as there are prove to be contradictory. It's apparent that it's not a `real' city, so speculation is effectively redundant, but - at least to this reviewer - the `feel' suggests western Yorkshire or the adjacent East Midlands. But, then again, it could be Manchester. The mere fact that I felt the need to make a guess indicates how disconcerting it is not to know. But it's certainly England.

The action is obviously rooted close to the present day, but there are no references to contemporary events, so again there is a sense of suspended reality. The two lead investigators are never identified by rank, and their forenames are rarely used; they are simply `Detective Hicks' and `Detective Fellowes'. Again, the cumulative effect is disconcerting, even though ranks are occasionally provided for other officers - a DCI, a DS, a WPC. The dialogue, especially between Hicks and Fellows is superbly crafted, and even the odd flash of humour isn't sufficient to dissipate the sense of menace.

In short, this novel earns, and fully deserves my admiration and I have no qualms about recommending it to all other potential readers. If it isn't quite your cup of tea, you are under no obligation to move on to Steve Mosby's other novels, but this one will stay with you and colour your perception of the work of others. Oh, and if you feel that the final disclosure of motive is less than convincing, remember that obsession denies logic, and overrides every other sentiment .....

Refusal (Dick Francis Novel)
Refusal (Dick Francis Novel)
by Felix Francis
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars What You See is What You Get, 4 Nov. 2013
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Readers who are already familiar with the novels of Dick and Felix Francis will decide for themselves whether to buy `Refusal', so this review is aimed at those who have only read one or two of the books, or are considering dipping a toe in the water for the first time.

Dick Francis was born in 1920, and following war service was a popular and successful jockey between 1946 and 1957, when the cumulative effect of racing injuries forced him to retire. He was Champion Jockey in 1953/54 and published his autobiography - `The Sport of Queens' - in 1957. His first novel, `Dead Cert' was published in 1962, and he wrote 42 more before his death in 2010. He also wrote a best-selling biography of Lester Piggott (published as `A Jockey's Life' in 1986, but later re-issued as `Lester') and published a collection of short stories, `Field of Thirteen' in 1998.

The last four novels were written in collaboration with his younger son, Felix Francis, and since his father's death Felix Francis has carried on the family tradition. And it WAS a family tradition; before her sudden death in 2000 Dick Francis' wife, Mary, had been an enthusiastic researcher and made significant contribution to the background subject matter of the novels. Francis once explained in an interview that Mary's family called him Richard, because there was already a Dick in their family; separately, they were Richard and Mary Francis, `Dick Francis' was a combination of them both. Having grown up with such a background, it's hardly surprising that Felix should continue where his father left off.

`Refusal' is the third novel from Felix Francis, the others being `Gamble' (2011) and `Crossfire' (2012). It continues the well-established formula, but is unusual in one respect - the lead character, Sid Halley, a former jockey turned private investigator, is one of only two main characters to appear in more than one book. Halley first appeared in 'Odds Against' (1965) and subsequently in `Whip Hand' (1974), `Come to Grief' (1995) and `Under Orders' (2006). On this, his fifth outing, Halley has retired from sleuthing and, having established himself in the financial sector, has settled down to life as a family man. Nothing could persuade him to go back to the investigation game.

Of course, that doesn't prevent people from trying to change his mind. One such is Sir Richard Stewart, chairman of the British Horseracing Authority, who asks Sid to investigate what seems to be a price-fixing scam. With a six-year-old daughter now the focus of his life, Sid stands firm and refuses to become involved. But the very next day Sir Richard is found dead, and Sid receives the first in a series of threatening phone calls ....

Another reviewer describes the books as formulaic, and so they are, but that is part of their enduring appeal. In the last half-century, successful British crime fiction has ranged from the academic police investigators of Colin Dexter and P D James to the thrillers of Frederick Forsyth and Lee Child and the crime noir of Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride, but throughout that time the Dick Francis novels - and now the novels of Felix Francis - have remained unchallenged in the middle ground. You know what you are getting. The world of racing will play a significant part in the plot. There will be a sympathetic lead character. There will be a sinister and malevolent criminal entity. You will become absorbed in the plot and will read for far longer than you intended. The good guy will triumph in the end. But those are the essential elements of most good thrillers. Given a few hours to fill, this is the perfect novel to occupy your time - it isn't too light to hold your attention, nor is it too heavy to read in a sitting if that's what you'd like to do. The same could be said of some of the all-time successes in the genre, so what's not to like?

Two short points to conclude. Firstly, I've seen some rather snide comments (not among these Amazon reviews, I hasten to add) about Felix Francis making the most of his father's name. Presumably that's because the book is described on the cover as `A Dick Francis Novel'. I have no inside information, but I'd bet that this is a decision by the publisher rather than the author. Secondly, a health warning: these novels should be consumed with care as they can be habit-forming and, as I have discovered to my cost, there is no known antidote ....

Looking Back at PTE Buses
Looking Back at PTE Buses
by Andrew Wiltshire
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.00

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Maybe I'm just odd ....., 26 Oct. 2013
..... and I can't deny that's been suggested more than once, but PTEs have never seemed to me to be a very cohesive subject. Obviously, those who worked in the industry at the relative time will have a different take on the subject, but as a long-time enthusiast rather than a professional I've never been able to appreciate their collective appeal. My direct experience is limited to only one PTE - Tyneside (1970-73; thereafter Tyne and Wear), and I've paid relatively little attention to the other six. It's fair to say that I only bought this book because a fine picture of a Tyne and Wear MCW Metropolitan graces the front cover - but I found myself with a truly excellent example of the landscape-format colour album genre.

If the book had looked at each PTE in turn, I might have devoured the Tyneside section and flicked superficially through the remainder. But it doesn't - it adopts the less obvious, but more intelligent approach of examining developments chronologically. I found myself reading carefully from page one, not only discovering details I didn't know, but finding nuggets of information I didn't even know I wanted to know!

This is a book with standards. The publisher, Bernard McCall (Coastal Shipping Publications) is clearly up there with Capital Transport among the handful of publishers who really care what their publications look like. Others take note! A fellow-reviewer singles out Silver Link; I can't disagree with him, but there are plenty of other offenders. `Looking Back at PTE Buses' is beautifully designed and produced. The illustrations are well chosen to illuminate the topic, and are processed and colour-balanced to a very high standard. The accompanying captions range from around 150 words where there are two illustrations to a page, up to 250 or so where there is a single illustration. This allows the author to incorporate a wealth of relevant historical detail, including in most cases the approximate date and the precise location. Following through in the order adopted in the book, the reader is provided with an outline of the constituents which came together to form the seven PTEs, and of the policies pursued by each from the early days of consolidation through the relatively short period of development until all were swept away by deregulation and subsequent privatisation.

As an avid and optimistic consumer of transport publications of many kinds, I've had my share of disappointments, but rarely has a book so far exceeded my expectations. With 96 pages and over 120 illustrations, rather more than half of which are in full-page format, the price is modest in relation to the quality of the offering. I have no hesitation in recommending it.

The Quintinshill Conspiracy: The Shocking True Story Behind Britainís Worst Rail Disaster
The Quintinshill Conspiracy: The Shocking True Story Behind Britainís Worst Rail Disaster
by Jack Richards
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.00

51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unfulfilled Potential, 23 Oct. 2013
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There is certainly a need for a new book about Quintinshill; the standard reference sources have for many years been `Gretna: Britain's Worst Railway Disaster (1915)' by John Thomas and `Britain's Greatest Rail Disaster: The Quintinshill Blaze of 1915' by JAB Hamilton, both books published as long ago as 1969. In the forty-odd years since then a good deal of new material has come to light. This could well have been that book, but unfortunately it isn't. What is needed is a balanced account, taking account of the new material and using it to demonstrate that, although hard facts are sparse, there is a huge amount of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Caledonian Railway manipulated the subsequent enquiries to direct attention away from the company's shortcomings and that in so doing it was in all probability supported by the government.

The book does indeed come to that conclusion, but its account is far from balanced. The clue may be in the title - advertised for pre-order as `Britain's Worst Rail Disaster: The Shocking Story of Quintinshill 1915', by the time of publication the title had been changed to `The Quintinshill Conspiracy: The Shocking True Story behind Britain's Worst Rail Disaster'. The authors adopt an approach taken by a long line of conspiracy theorists throughout history - cast as much doubt and dirt as possible upon the `official' version and repeat the elements of the conspiracy theory interminably until the general reader accepts them as fact. This is a great pity, because I already accept, and have long believed, that there was indeed serious impropriety - a `conspiracy', if you like - in the handling of the Quintinshill enquiries.

In fairness to the authors I feel that I ought to explain the thinking behind my criticism, and as a result this review will necessarily be lengthy. As will become apparent, I am actually encouraging prospective readers to buy the book, but I hope they will take the time to consider what follows and to bear it in mind when making up their own minds. To set the scene, it's necessary to understand what happened at Quintinshill in the early hours of Saturday 22 May 1915. Quintinshill was an intermediate signal box just under 1Ĺ miles north of Gretna Junction and just over 2ĺ miles south of Kirkpatrick Fleming. It controlled loops on both up and down lines, and a trailing crossover between the main running lines.

On the fateful morning George Meakin, the signalman, was aware that two late-running expresses were approaching from the South, preceded by a slow-moving goods train and a local stopping passenger train. He also knew that a troop train was approaching from the North, again preceded by a slow goods train. The down goods arrived first, and was secured in the down loop. A little later, the up goods and the down stopping passenger arrived pretty much simultaneously. The up goods was diverted into the up loop, and at the same time the down local passenger stopped just beyond the crossover and reversed through the crossover on to the up main line. The first down express passed through without incident. During these manoeuvres, another signalman, James Tinsley, arrived and took over responsibility for the box. The up troop train was offered from Kirkpatrick signal box, and was accepted by Tinsley, despite the fact that the down stopping passenger was blocking the up line. There was a head-on collision, and a minute or so later the second down express ran into the wreckage. The troop train was made up of long-outdated and predominantly wooden-framed coaching stock, lit by gas; the gas cylinders were ruptured, the wreckage caught fire and the scene was soon a blazing inferno. The number of fatalities has been the subject of some argument, but I'm happy with the figures used in the book; 2 railwaymen and 214 soldiers from the troop train, 1 railwayman, 5 military personnel and 6 civilians on the Glasgow express, and 2 civilians on the local passenger train, an overall total of 230.

The official enquiries focused almost exclusively upon rule infringements by the two signalmen, and rule infringements there certainly were. First of all, the signalmen had an unauthorised agreement to change shifts at, rather than the official changeover time of To conceal this, the outgoing signalman would note train movements after on a loose sheet, so that his colleague could copy these entries into the Train Register in his own handwriting. Secondly, after placing the local passenger train on the up line, Meakin had failed to place a collar on the up home signal lever, to prevent the signal (and the associated distant signal) being used. Thirdly, Meakin had failed to give the `blocking back' signal to Kirkpatrick box to advise that the up line was obstructed.

Here we must pause to consider the exact significance of `rules'. For the employer - in this case the Caledonian Railway - rules served a dual purpose. Most obviously, they were designed to ensure safe operation of the railway, but they also had a second significant function - to ensure, so far as possible, that the employer was insulated from any culpability if things went wrong. This was the case in both private and public sectors for decades - it was the reason why the `work-to-rule' was so strongly favoured as an industrial bargaining tool later in the century. The truth of the matter was that rules proliferated to such an extent that employees could not remember, much less apply them all. Employers needed to have rules in place in order to protect themselves, but did not want those rules to impact upon profits, so in the fullness of time many rules were largely ignored on a day to day basis.

If rules really were important, employers needed to provide sufficient supervision to ensure that those rules were adhered to. It would seem that the Caledonian Railway, at least in the Gretna district, failed to provide anything approaching adequate supervision. Lever collars were routinely ignored, no doubt because the signalmen felt that they knew perfectly well where they had placed their trains - though accident reports make it clear that there were many occasions when signalmen did forget, and people died as a result. The variation of changeover time was put forward as a significant contributory factor to the accident. The signalmen's representative might reasonably have observed that, if that were so, then presumably the travelling public must be exposed to mortal danger three times a day on every line in the land. That didn't happen, but one of the signalmen, James Tinsley, lived only a matter of yards from his immediate superior, the Gretna stationmaster, and it seems incredible that in the tiny railway community at Gretna the late changeover arrangement would not be common knowledge. At Quintinshill, correct use of the lever collar could well have prevented the accident, but this was not pressed by the Caledonian's representatives, presumably because it would draw attention to the inadequacy of supervision.

The third alleged failure, that Meakin did not give the `blocking back' bell code to Kirkpatrick, was the matter pursued most vigorously by the Caledonian representatives. The authors contend that Meakin was prohibited from giving the signal, and this is a major plank of their case for conspiracy. I don't think this argument is viable. `Blocking back' was a relatively recent innovation in 1915; the essential objective being to ensure that if a main running line was obstructed, perhaps by a shunting operation, the next box back up that running line should be made aware of and authorise the blockage. The bell code signal was to be given before the blocking manoeuvre began. Quintinshill was something of an anomaly. The up coal train was still moving into the loop when the local passenger drew to a halt. This had two consequences. The Kirkpatrick block instrument would still show `train on line'. The presence of the crossover allowed the local passenger to begin to reverse to the up line. But the rule book said that the blocking back signal should be given before that manoeuvre began.

The Caledonian prided itself on offering `business as usual' despite the 40% increase in traffic as a result of the war. Its officers were `encouraged', if not formally instructed in print, to give the main expresses the maximum possible priority. Meakin rightly considered that to wait for the goods to fully clear the main line, allowing him to give the `train out of section' to Kirkpatrick box, immediately followed by the `blocking back' code, all of this before allowing the local passenger to reverse, would result in delay to the express. He therefore felt justified in beginning the manoeuvre prematurely. In so doing, he infringed a rule, though in circumstances which the Caledonian would privately applaud. So, at the end of the manoeuvre, the goods and local passenger trains were in their places, and the block instruments still showed train on line, and would do so until the `train out of section signal' was given. There was clearly an omission in the rule book in that it provided no instructions for giving the `blocking back' bellcode in the situation now obtaining at Quintinshill, though the prohibition in the existing rule was by inference rather than explicit. So what was to be done? The whole objective of the `blocking back' procedure was to ensure that the Kirkpatrick signalman was aware that the up line at Quintinshill was occupied. This could be achieved by waiting for the local passenger to leave before giving the `train out of section' code or by giving that code, immediately followed by the `blocking back' code, or by telephoning the signalman at Kirkpatrick or by a combination of these methods. In the event, the `train out of section' bell code was given when the up goods had cleared the up main line, although the line was still occupied by the local passenger. Neither of the two signalmen would admit to being responsible for this. The Kirkpatrick signalman was therefore left with the impression that the line was clear, so he duly offered the troop train.

Summarising the above, I would suggest that the authors are wrong to take the view that George Meakin was `prohibited' from using the `blocking back' code. Taking the strict view, he certainly infringed the `blocking back' rule by starting the manoeuvre before giving and receiving the bell code. We may have some sympathy with his actions in the circumstances in which he found himself, but he was an experienced signalman and must have appreciated that the most important duty was to make sure that Kirkpatrick was aware that the section was occupied. If he specifically intended to do this by delaying the `train out of section' bell signal, he failed to say so at any of the enquiries. And, of course, if he had used the lever collar the accident might still have been avoided.

The second plank of the authors' case is that James Tinsley was seriously ill on the morning of the accident. There simply isn't the evidence to underpin that argument. There's no doubt that he froze at the time of the first collision - it was Meakin who frantically threw back the signals for the express, and Tinsley certainly seems to have experiences some form of post-traumatic stress . A number of witnesses commented upon how frail and ill he looked, and his GP decided that he had suffered an epileptic fit and should not be moved from his home. Evidence of his state of mind before the accident is contradictory. Meakin makes no mention of anything untoward when he briefed Tinsley on the current situation prior to changeover, but others felt that his behaviour was abnormal. In at least one respect it certainly was - after the collision Tinsley consistently admitted to forgetting all about the local passenger train on the up line, even though he had hitched a lift on the locomotive from Gretna to Quintinshill just a few minutes earlier. The only other mention of illness is a reference in the Edinburgh press to Tinsley having suffered `fits' - presumably this derives from the GP's opinion. The authors produce no evidence suggesting that Tinsley had fits in later life, nor do they provide any expert medical opinion to explain how he might have acted under the influence of epilepsy, or indeed of any other condition that might have affected him on 22 May 1915. He may simply have slept badly the previous night. In short, without much more specific evidence to the contrary, William of Ockham's celebrated razor dictates that the simplest solution is to be preferred, and that solution suggests that he was simply `out of sorts' on the fateful Saturday morning; nothing that followed was inconsistent with post-traumatic shock.

The third main plank of the authors' case is the involvement of the Caledonian Railway in what amounted to a damage limitation exercise. In general, I agree with their conclusions in this regard, so there is no need to elaborate here. It is, however, worth emphasising that class divisions were still very sharp in 1915; the erosive effect of war didn't come into play until hostilities were over. Many middle-class professionals were happy to place blame firmly upon those at the metaphorical coalface, and thus were very keen to espouse explanations which tended to justify that bias.

The Government, too, seems to have had a finger in the pie; the authors draw attention to an apparent news blackout immediately after the adjournment of the initial enquiry. Perhaps it was thought bad for public morale. More significantly, it no doubt helped to deflect attention from the Government's failure to ensure, through the Railway Executive, that the railway companies consistently treated military requirements as the top priority, and from the fact that the Railway Executive was allowing the use of antiquated and dangerous stock to be used for moving troops. After all, whatever the immediate cause of the collisions may have been, the death toll was hugely increased by the telescoping and subsequent combustion of the troop train. It's difficult to see why this issue was not addressed by the Board of Trade enquiry, unless - again - pressure was brought to bear.

In summary - at last! I hear you say - I think that the authors are entirely justified in their contention that the Caledonian Railway and, in all probability, the Government of the day did seek to manipulate the various enquiries to deflect any suggestion of shortcomings on their respective parts. Why else would the Caledonian - a company not noted for philanthropy - have given jobs to both men after their release from prison? The company also seems to have generously supported their dependants. Taking account of all the available evidence, some sort of deal seems to have been reached with the signalmen, under which they jointly accepted responsibility in return for an assurance of support for themselves and their families. If only the authors had been content with that! The other issues they pursue weaken rather than strengthen the overall case. There are too many purely speculative observations - for example, Meakin had a car in later life, so where did the money come from? A possible source is mentioned (his wife was a publican but their pub was compulsorily acquired by the Carlisle and District State Management Scheme) but no figures are provided for the value of a typical car or for the amount of compensation received for the pub - so why raise the matter at all? In strictly factual terms, it is undeniable that errors by the signalmen were the immediate cause of the accident. The uncharacteristically narrow focus of the Board of Trade enquiry and the various other legal processes was an entirely different matter. By failing to adequately distinguish immediate factual responsibility from moral and lrgal responsibility the authors have simply muddied the waters.

Nevertheless, they have done well to study all of the available press coverage, some of which gives much greater detail of the enquiry proceedings than the official reports, but this good work is diluted by the `conspiracy theory' style of presentation. They are occasionally selective in presenting the established facts. As an example, they emphasise the fact that the lever frame and instrument shelf was in the middle of the signal box, requiring the signalmen to work with their backs to the railway and thus implying some justification for Tinsley's claim that he had simply forgotten about the local passenger train. On the other hand, they fail to provide a diagram of the layout of the box; had they done so, it would have revealed that the train register desk, where Tinsley had spent some minutes transcribing Meakin's notes, was against the front window, so that the stationary local passenger would be clearly visible to him, a few yards to his right.

There are also indications that the authors' research may have been rather superficial. Two examples are given below; there are plenty of others.

Chapter 3, Note 2: `Carlisle was not formally granted city status until 1974, but has been colloquially, and widely, known as the Border City for much longer and is thus referred to as a city throughout the book.' It was known as the Border City because it WAS a city, having been chartered as such by Henry II in 1158. So only 816 years out!

Chapter 7, page 85: `He had chosen the city's Saul & Lightfoot legal practice, of which G. A. (known as Lionel) Lightfoot was a partner.' Hmm. This seems to be a case of conflating two distinct individuals. Lionel Lightfoot was indeed a solicitor, very well-known and well-liked in Carlisle society - and indeed among the population at large - from the 1920s to the 1960s. He was a slightly larger than life character and a dedicated thespian. His name, however, was George Lionel Spencer Lightfoot; he was born on 1 November 1897 and so was only 17 at the time of the Quintinshill Disaster. G. A. Lightfoot was of an earlier generation, and I can find no evidence to suggest that he was ever known as Lionel.

More care and better writing could have made this a great book. Instead, it reads like a typical conspiracy theory. Nevertheless, everyone with an interest in railway history should buy a copy. Quintinshill was, after all, Britain's worst-ever railway disaster, and if you can ignore the speculation this book presents a compelling case in support of the view that the evidence as presented was significantly laundered in the interests of the Caledonian Railway and the Government. With the centenary only a couple of years away, more detail is likely to emerge, hopefully to be followed by a more balanced and probing analysis of the evidence.
Comment Comments (19) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 17, 2014 5:33 PM GMT

The Backs (Dc Goodhew 5)
The Backs (Dc Goodhew 5)
by Alison Bruce
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More murder and mayhem in darkest Cambridge!, 18 Oct. 2013
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This is Alison Bruce's fifth novel featuring DC Gary Goodhew and his Cambridge colleagues. If you've read the previous novels - `Cambridge Blue', `The Siren', `The Calling' and `The Silence' - you've probably bought this book already, so you don't need any recommendation from me. This review is therefore aimed at those who are new to the series.

The first thing to clear up is the choice of a DC as lead character; in too many cases this immediately weakens the credibility of the tale - why is a Detective Constable with the talent to solve a succession of complex mysteries still on the first rung of the CID ladder? Worry not! Gary Goodhew is a thoroughly believable character, certainly one of the good guys, but with sufficient character flaws to limit his prospects. He's intelligent and dedicated, but at the same time obsessive and unpredictable. He's not exactly socially inept, but he's a bit of a loner, so the job is his life and he is inclined to follow his instincts, even when they conflict with his instructions. The long-suffering DI Marks regards Goodhew with a mixture of indulgence and irritation; he respects his thoughtful insights, but despairs of his unorthodox actions. In short, Goodhew is simply an unreconstructed human being - most readers will be reminded of someone they know or have known.

The story begins with paramedic Genevieve Barnes making her way home through back-street Cambridge. She hears a yelp - probably a female human voice, in some kind of distress - but can't pinpoint the origin. Suddenly a gate opens, a man appears, muttering `Help her'. Genevieve checks the garden and finds a young woman, unconscious and bleeding profusely. She calls for assistance and attempts to staunch the bleeding. But then she, too, is stabbed ....

Meanwhile, Goodhew has stopped at police roadblock diverting traffic away from a burning car. Not his business, but he's told that the car hasn't been involved in an accident, there appear to be no occupants and the fire seems to have been started deliberately. He has a `Goodhew moment' and soon discovers a body tied to a tree, a field's width away from the road. His thought processes are explained and are perfectly logical, but you'll need to read the book to find out what they are!

Up in Leeds, a shoplifter has been arrested, and a fingerprint check reveals that she is wanted for questioning by Cambridge police in connection with a seven-year-old murder case.

These are the three ingredients that Alison Bruce weaves into a darkly absorbing tale. As in her previous books, the story is intricately constructed and there are plenty of page-turning developments - those who like to read in bed will be at serious risk of sleep deprivation! Through it all, the plotting is scrupulous; everything is explained and the author doesn't hide behind devices such as failing to reveal information as it becomes available to the characters. My only (very slight) reservation is that one or two of those characters seem to me to be a little `over the top', though even that may be unfair, as I can find doppelgangers for all of them among my past acquaintances - not that I'm implying that I've been in the habit of mixing with murderers, though I did once work in the Civil Service, which is not all that dissimilar ...

In short, I found `The Backs' to be a thoroughly satisfying read, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to any crime buff new to the series. The book works perfectly well as a standalone novel, but you may well find yourself buying the four earlier books, and if that's the case it would be as well to do so in the order in which they are listed above.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 5, 2014 5:28 PM BST

Bad Blood (DI Marjory Fleming)
Bad Blood (DI Marjory Fleming)
by Aline Templeton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and original plot set against the backdrop of glorious Galloway., 15 Oct. 2013
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This is the eighth novel featuring DI Marjory Fleming, based at the headquarters of Galloway Constabulary in the fictional town of Kirkluce. Kirkluce lies on the A75, roughly half way between Newton Stewart and the busy ferry terminals of Cairnryan and Stranraer, and not far from the real - but much smaller - village of Glenluce.

It's a strong point of the series that Marjory is an utterly convincing character. She followed her late father into the police force, but married Bill Fleming, a local farmer, and although there is a deep bond between them the conflicting pressures of domestic and professional life are often problematic. They have two children, Catriona (Cat) and Cameron (Cammie), both of whom are young adults at the time of the present novel.

Marnie Bruce suffers from hyperthymesia - a condition which enables her to remember everything she has ever seen. If a memory is triggered, she re-lives the past as if watching a film - except for one night, 31 October 1993, when she was 11 years old. She remembers coming home from celebrating Hallowe'en, but her mind is blank from that point until she was found by a neighbour the following morning, covered in blood from a severe head injury. And her mother had vanished completely. Now, following the breakdown of a relationship, she decides to return to Galloway in search of answers. A young PC Fleming was part of the initial response to the neighbour's call for assistance on that black day in 1993, and Marnie looks to her for help. But that raises difficult problems for Margery, because to provide any sort of explanation for the events of 1993 she would need to reveal information about a crime committed twenty years earlier, and that information is very definitely not for public consumption ....

To provide further details of the plot would be unfair to prospective readers, but it's perhaps worth mentioning that the cast of characters is quite substantial. All of them are introduced in the early chapters, but bearing in mind the 40-year period explored in the novel, readers who share my capacity for confusion may find it helpful to list the names and relationships as they appear, especially if they expect to spread their reading over several days. That's not in any sense a criticism of the plot; it hangs together very well, but it IS quite complex and every character has a necessary part to play.

The broad setting will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in Galloway. In the East, it begins at Clatteringshaws Loch, in the heart of the Galloway Forest Park, lying on `The Queen's Road' (the A712 between New Galloway and Newton Stewart) and stretches in the West to the shores of Loch Ryan, a few miles north of Stranraer. In between, there are miles of remote and beautiful countryside. If you don't know the area, it might be worth spending half-an-hour on Google. Galloway is definitely NOT Home Counties rural, and an understanding of the remote and sometimes desolate landscape will help you to appreciate the `feel' of the story.

Aline Templeton seems to me to be seriously underrated. This really is an excellent crime novel, combining a sensitive portrayal of the kind of people to whom Galloway is home with a sharp and original plot offering plenty of `page-turner' moments. Hyperthymesia was only identified as a specific condition in 2006, and so far as I'm aware it has never previously featured in a crime novel. There are other very contemporary themes in the tale, as the reader will discover. What's not to like? Well, a couple of other characters turn out to have obsessive tendencies, and whilst by no means outside the bounds of possibility I didn't feel wholly convinced about the consequences stemming from these tendencies - but that's a minor criticism when weighed against the many good things in this book. I thoroughly enjoyed `Bad Blood' and have no hesitation in recommending it to other crime buffs!
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An Officer and a Spy
An Officer and a Spy
by Robert Harris
Edition: Hardcover

32 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing read about historical skulduggery in high places - still hugely relevant today!, 7 Oct. 2013
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This review is from: An Officer and a Spy (Hardcover)
This is the ninth novel from Robert Harris, the latest in an illustrious sequence including such top sellers such as `Fatherland', `Enigma', `Archangel', `Pompeii' and `The Ghost'. These novels aren't easy to compartmentalise; some are certainly thrillers, but others don't comfortably fit into that genre. Most - but not all - have a historical dimension, but even then the settings range from the recent past to the days of the Roman Empire. That's part of the author's appeal - the reader never knows quite what to expect but can be sure that, however complex the subject matter may be, it will be presented in language which may in turn be atmospheric, dynamic, provocative or idyllic but will always be accessible. As a former political reporter and journalist, Harris has enviable language skills, but he is certainly not part of the I-know-more-big-words-than-you-do school of writing.

Given such varied output, it's hardly surprising that readers will enjoy some Harris books more than others; that much is evident from the range of reviews posted here. I quite enjoyed reading his previous novel, `The Fear Index', but having finished the book I found myself picking retrospective holes in the plotting, and by the time I wrote a review I felt that it only merited three stars. That certainly hasn't happened with `An Officer and a Spy'; from the opening chapters it felt like a five-star novel, and it still does!

The novel explores the `Dreyfus Affair', a political scandal that rocked France and caught the attention of the world in the 1890s, not being finally resolved until 1906. Alfred Dreyfus was a captain in the French army, a Jew from Alsace, the French region centred on Strasbourg which was annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. In the early 1890s, the French army obtained evidence that a member of their forces was attempting to sell secret information to the Germans. On the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence, Dreyfus was arrested and subsequently tried, convicted and exiled fur life to Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana. He was the ideal culprit for a variety of reasons. He was a Jew at a time when anti-Semitism was rife in France. He spoke German, and French with a German accent (as in fact did a significant proportion of the inhabitants of Alsace!). He had relatives, still living in Alsace, who were now by definition German nationals. He was wealthy, but that wealth was derived from assets in Germany. He was not a social creature, but he was ambitious for advancement and asked a lot of questions. Certainly the military authorities believed him to be guilty, but they had assembled no hard evidence to support that belief and Dreyfus continued to protest his innocence.

The story is told through the eyes of Georges Picquart, who - like all the characters in the book - was a real person. As a major, Picquart had tutored Dreyfus at the Army College, and at the time of the trial he was selected to brief the Minister of War and the Chief of the General Staff on the day-to-day progress of the military court. For his success in performing this service he was promoted to the rank of colonel - the youngest in the French army - and appointed as the new head of army intelligence.

That sets the scene, and to go further might compromise the enjoyment of potential readers who, like myself, start with a vague awareness of the Dreyfus affair but little or no knowledge of the detail. Even with almost 500 pages at his disposal, the author admits that the cast of characters has had to be limited and, of course, there are - to use the author's own words - `various sleights of hand in narrative and characterisation' needed to turn fact into fiction. But, in substance, the story is told precisely as it happened.

The Dreyfus story works extremely well as a novel. Obviously, historians require facts, but facts served alone can be too dry for the palate of the general reader. Fiction, as for example in the accounts of interaction between the various characters, adds spice and (with apologies for overworking the metaphor!) makes the whole thing much more digestible.

If this review piques your interest in the book, I unreservedly recommend that you read it. You'll probably enjoy it rather more if you don't pursue Dreyfus on Google beforehand, but you should certainly do so afterwards, just to satisfy yourself that `A Officer and a Spy' stays very close to the historical facts. Even if you are already familiar with the Dreyfus affair, the book is well worth reading - the message is as relevant today as it was a century ago.

As a parting thought, if you think that this sort of thing could only happen in a country like France, think again. There have been similar miscarriages of justice on this side of the Channel - check out Oscar Slater on Google. The circumstances were admittedly rather different; the place of the French army was taken by the City of Glasgow Police Force, and the year was 1908. But as in the Dreyfus affair there was increasing public unease about the case, the protests ultimately being championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. As in France the wheels of justice turned slowly and the matter was not resolved until 1928. A little more research will reveal plenty of similar cases, and it is naÔve to suppose that gross miscarriages of justice are solely a thing of the past.
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Children of the Revolution: The 21st DCI Banks Mystery (Inspector Banks 21)
Children of the Revolution: The 21st DCI Banks Mystery (Inspector Banks 21)
by Peter Robinson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

3.0 out of 5 stars Your past is all around you ....., 5 Oct. 2013
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This is the twenty-first novel in Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks series, based in the northern Yorkshire dales. DCI Banks is fast approaching 60 and unenthusiastically contemplating retirement. There's a possibility of promotion, which would keep him in the job for an extra five years or so, but is that what he really wants? What he needs is a challenging case to occupy his waking hours, but what he gets is an apparent suicide ... though in the Eastvale area things are rarely as they seem!

The dead man, Gavin Miller, turns out to have been a Child of the Revolution - a student at the University of Essex in the heady days of the early 1970s, when narcotic substances and extreme political philosophy loomed large in student life. His career in education came to an inglorious end when he was sacked from Eastvale College for alleged sexual harassment of two female students. Lacking the financial resources to remain in Eastvale, Miller has latterly occupied a remote cottage overlooking a disused railway line near the village of Coverton; his body is found beneath a bridge crossing the former trackbed, now a paved footpath. Did he jump, or was he pushed? And why does he have an envelope in his pocket containing £5,000 in used £50 notes?

Starting with little else but Miller's name and place of residence, the usual team of DI Annie Cabbot and DS Winsome Jackman, augmented by new DC Gerry (short for Geraldine) Masterson, begins the slow and painstaking business of rebuilding the story of his life. Miller proves to have been something of a loner, a shadowy figure never in the front rank of his peers or colleagues, and every aspect of his past needs to be pieced together from hard-won bits and pieces of information accumulated from every available source. This slow-moving procedure no doubt accounts for the complaints by other reviewers that the novel is boring or tedious. Every reader quite rightly has his or her own personal preferences, but I quite enjoyed following the slow and systematic search for clues - it seemed to me that the credibility of the story was enhanced by relying upon hard work rather than fortuitous circumstance to drive the plot forward. A couple of reviewers refer to stereotypes and clichés, but again I don't think that the criticism is wholly justified. For example, a substantial minority among the rich and powerful do seek to exert their influence improperly in order to gain personal advantage - reference to such behaviour is hardly a cliché!

I really enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book, but unhappily the remaining third fails to live up to the promise of the preceding chapters. In part this may be because the carefully-crafted investigation leaves too few potential suspects, but it also reflects something of a change of direction which takes the tale into less credible territory. I can't go into detail without spoiling the enjoyment of those who have yet to read the book, but I did guess the identity of the villain of the piece at a fairly early stage - not something I'm particularly good at! - and this inevitably suppressed any feeling of suspense or revelation in the closing chapters.

In summary, this is by no means a bad novel, but it isn't among Robinson's best, which is a pity because at his best he's a world-class writer. If I could use half-stars, I'd award three-and-a-half, but since it doesn't meet my criteria for four stars I've had to settle for three. Don't let that put you off too much, though - it's still an above-average crime novel, and if you've enjoyed the earlier books in the series you'll need to keep up to date with life as lived in Eastvale.

To end on a trivial note, I don't know whether the fault lies with the author or his editor but - as every Yorkshire lad should know - in Britain a fender is something that surrounds an old-fashioned fireplace, or the conglomeration of ropes and old tyres used to protect the sides of a boat - the corner panels of a motor vehicle are either wings or mudguards. And do we really need to have such exhaustive details of Banks's menu selections and choice of background music?

Finally, by the time my pre-ordered copy of this book arrived it had been on sale in high street booksellers for almost three weeks. This has happened two or three times over the past year or so - has anyone else had similar problems?

The Black Country (Scotland Yard's Murder Squad)
The Black Country (Scotland Yard's Murder Squad)
by Alex Grecian
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.50

15 of 21 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Worse than awful - shoddy writing without any discernable effort at research., 26 July 2013
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Let's suppose that you are an aspiring writer of crime fiction and have spent your entire life in the United Kingdom. You're looking for an original setting for your novels, and you decide to place the action in - say - 1890s Quebec. What would be your first priority? Full marks if you said `research'; if you're going to be a success, you need to discover as much as you can about Quebec! What was going on in that period? How did the police force operate? What were the principal sources of employment? What proportion of the population spoke English? Dozens of similar questions arise, and even more detailed research will be required as your novel develops. A few years ago, a visit to Quebec would have been essential but happily for modern authors virtually all the answers you need can easily be found on line. So why did Alex Grecian - writing about the late-Victorian English West Midlands from the mid-Western USA - succeed in getting so many basic facts absolutely wrong?

The plot itself is acceptably solid. There are major and minor threads which at first seem to share a fairly tenuous connection, but which gradually converge to set the scene for a dramatic climax. The minor thread involves an elusive but apparently murderous American who has come to the village of Blackhampton in pursuit of an acquaintance with whom he has a long-outstanding score to settle. The major thread is an investigation by two Scotland Yard detectives into the disappearance of local worthy Sutton Price, his second wife, Hester, and Oliver, the youngest of Price's four children. They have been missing for a week or so before our detective heroes arrive; the time is early March 1890, and the area is in the grip of a heavy late snowfall.

The prologue launches the book with a bang - or, more correctly, a crash. The tomboy daughter of the local innkeeper is climbing trees in search of birds' eggs when she discovers an unusual example. Closer inspection reveals that it is uncharacteristically spherical and has a completely different texture from the other eggs in the nest; in fact, it looks more like an eyeball .... at which point the horrified finder crashes down through the branches and spends the rest of the tale with her leg in a splint. Cue Inspector Walter Day and his Sergeant, Nevil Hammersmith.

All this seems to offer considerable promise, but the author fails utterly to develop the potential of his plot. He fails for two related reasons - his evident and pretty much total lack of research, and his tendency to scatter staggering anachronisms. Some of the features he attributes to late-Victorian England would have been outdated a century earlier. The problem becomes evident in the early pages, as Day and Hammersmith make their way from the station to the village, in the company of the local Sergeant Grimes. They discuss mining subsidence, and it seems from their conversation that the author believes that buildings sink progressively but vertically into the earth, much as if they were slowly being swallowed by quicksand. The same applies to mature trees - they apparently subside, remaining upright, until only their upper limbs remain, like bushes, on the surface. This is attributed to subsidence into sub-surface `tunnels'.

I don't claim any expertise in coal mining; it's a complex field, but in simple terms `tunnels' are crucial for moving miners to and from the coalface and moving coal to the foot of the shaft. Because of their logistic importance, they are built to last, and they are not a major factor in subsidence. Subsidence occurs because coal is removed from the coalface and nothing is put in its place. The roof of the excavated area needs to be supported, and traditionally this was done by leaving pillars of coal at appropriate intervals. Eventually, a combination of pressure and erosion causes the roof to collapse, but by then the miners are long gone from that area. The collapse leads - not always immediately - to surface subsidence, but buildings move with the ground, rather than by sinking into it. Structural damage results from cracks developing as a result of movement of foundations; ultimately the structure may collapse, but it's often a slow process. Dramatic, headline-grabbing subsidence is generally the result of inadequate capping of abandoned shafts, and for that reason is usually confined to a fairly small area. Subsidence was certainly a problem in the Black Country, because of the exceptional thickness of the main coal seam and its relative proximity to the surface, but it was still conventional subsidence - there was simply more of it.

Good crime writing doesn't necessarily depend upon absolute accuracy, but it DOES demand credibility. Grecian's images of trees and buildings sinking sedately into the ground are so bizarre that they seriously weaken the whole narrative. There are other glaring inaccuracies, too. Sergeant Hammersmith, who seems to be in his thirties, is of Welsh mining stock, and claims to have started work in the mines at the age of three or four. That would imply a starting date within five years either side of 1860 - but the Mines Act 1842 prohibited employment of children under 10. No doubt mine owners interpreted the law with some flexibility, but surely not to that extent! The local Sergeant calls in Scotland Yard on his own initiative - his Chief Constable will definitely not be pleased! The Scotland Yard Inspector carries a firearm as a matter of course; the author is apparently unaware of the British tradition of unarmed policing. The characters converse in an unconvincing pastiche of late-Victorian English with overtones of earlier and later periods and a marked US influence. West Bromwich is described as `a village' at a date which can't be much earlier than 1860, although the 1861 census records a substantial town with a population of 41,795. The Black Country itself is portrayed as a relatively primitive place, dogged by long-standing folk myths. In fact the term `Black Country' was first recorded in the 1840s and didn't come into general use until at least twenty years later. The origin of the term is uncertain, but it probably derived from the ever-present pall of smoke from the coke ovens, ironworks and steel mills; there are several contemporary references to the area being `black by day and red by night'. By the 1890s, most of the population were, or were descended from incomers attracted by the availability of employment - not the kind of demographic in which medieval beliefs would be likely to thrive. There are many more errors and anachronisms which I can't reveal without disclosing too much of the plot.

You may feel that the last three paragraphs have little direct relevance in a book review. You may be right, but I would argue that they illustrate my main criticism perfectly. To the best of my recollection I have never spent time in the Black Country. I know where it is, and I have no doubt passed through it en route to other destinations, but apart from that I know nothing about it. Everything I have mentioned has been gleaned from roughly 90 minutes of browsing the internet. The author clearly felt that it wasn't worth his while to spend time on a similar exercise. The result is a slipshod mess which insults the intelligence of the reader. Despite the inherent potential of the plot, this has got to be a prime candidate for first place in the list of the worst crime novels I have ever read. Don't waste your money!

Finally, I bought the book after browsing Amazon's list of hardback crime novels. Despite the title and setting, It turned out to be a US edition of a book by a US author - neither fact being revealed on the information page. In fact, I can't find any reference to a UK hardback edition. Surely this is relevant customer information which Amazon could and should provide?
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The Ways of the World: (The Wide World - James Maxted 1)
The Ways of the World: (The Wide World - James Maxted 1)
by Robert Goddard
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A triumphant return to form!, 17 July 2013
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After trying his hand at teaching, journalism and educational administration, Robert Goddard's first novel was published in 1986; he has been a writer ever since, and `The Ways of the World' is his twenty-fourth offering. By any standards he has been successful, most of his work reaching the bestseller listings, but there seems to be a broad consensus view that the novels published in the 1980s and 1990s are better than his more recent output. He is noted for his skill in weaving complex plots involving numerous unanticipated twists, some of which change the whole direction of the narrative. His work falls within the thriller genre, but maintains a nicely restrained balance between dramatic action and what can best be described as puzzle-solving. Most of his work has at least some kind of historical dimension, and - as befits an author who studied history at Cambridge - his historical backgrounds are always utterly convincing. If Goddard has an Achilles' heel, it must be his tendency to construct plotlines such immense complexity that the final denouement pales in comparison. This weakness was evident in Goddard's previous (and otherwise excellent) novel `Fault Line', which held the reader pretty much enthralled right through to the final chapter, but then left him or her with a sense of deflation because despite the devious plot it immediately became evident that the objective as finally revealed would have been achieved with greater security and certainty by taking a much simpler approach.

The focus of `The Ways of the World' is Paris in 1919, during the Peace Conference following `The War to End all Wars', when the victorious nations seek to re-draw the map of the world according to their respective political advantage, and in so doing lay the foundation for further carnage a couple of decades later. Paris has become a focus of international journalism, espionage and opportunism; with the eyes of the world upon them, the last thing the British Delegation needs is a whiff of scandal, so when ex-diplomat Sir Henry Maxted apparently falls from the roof of his mistress's apartment building, pressure is brought to bear to suppress any hint of suspicion in relation to the death. Sir Henry's elder son, heir to the baronetcy, is eager to co-operate, but his younger son, James `Max' Maxted, an ex-Royal Flying Corps pilot, senses that all is not as it is being made to appear, and is determined to discover precisely how and why his father died.

It would be unfair to reveal more of the plot, but after a slowish start the story develops its own momentum and the book becomes increasingly difficult to put down. Goddard is at his impeccable best in setting the tale in its historic context; his descriptions of people, places and events have an almost pictorial quality and he constructs the Paris of almost a century ago in terms which are vividly alive, yet absolutely credible. As another reviewer has commented, the cast of political characters is bewilderingly large, and if you have doubts about your capacity for remembering names it might be worth keeping pencil and paper handy until the participants become more familiar. Provided that you can cope with that problem, this is a superb novel - certainly the best we have had from Goddard in recent years and perhaps even a contender for his best-ever work. I have no hesitation in awarding five stars, and I wholeheartedly recommend the book.

As the possibility that this book is the first in a trilogy has been floated by some other reviewers, I'd better comment on that possibility. The short answer is that I haven't a clue, but I can't find any references to support the idea. Searching for `Robert Goddard' and `trilogy' brings up a reference to three of his earlier books - `Into the Blue' (1990), `Out of the Sun' (1996) and `Never go Back' (2006); these three book all feature the same lead character, Harry Barnett, and are in chronological sequence, but they are essentially stand-alone novels and don't seem to have been consciously written as a trilogy. No precedent there, then. The only other reference is to an interview with the author four or five years ago, which is available on YouTube in three sections - aren't search engines wonderful?

What IS certain is that there will be a sequel; we can safely presume this because under the closing words of the last chapter the author leaves us with the words `TO BE CONTINUED', writ large in capitals. Hopefully, that implies that the next book will be that sequel; if not, I shall certainly sulk! Don't let knowledge of the forthcoming extension of the tale put you off the present book; the puzzles that will keep you gripped are almost all resolved by the last chapter. A handful of new puzzles are added in the closing stages, but you won't feel cheated - just eager to get your hands on the next instalment.

And finally, can anyone suggest what the guy on the dust jacket is peering at through his telescope?

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