One Last Breath by Stephen Booth

I’ve been reading Booth’s Cooper and Fry series in order, and I’m therefore not sure how well the stories work as stand alone books. While each covers an individual police investigation spanning from the committing of a crime through to its resolution, the ongoing relationships of recurring characters progress from book to book, and therefore familiarity with their interaction and experience in previous stories is probably needed for a more complete appreciation of the subsequent books.

Near the beginning of One Last Breath, Mansell Quinn is released from Sudbury minimum security prison after completing his “life” sentence for a vicious and bloody murder, but instead of heading to the designated post-release hostel in Burton-on-Trent, he chooses to head back to his former home town, leading police to fear for the safety of his surviving family and former friends.

Regardless of the story itself, Stephen Booth’s fifth Cooper and Fry book got my attention very quickly with references to places familiar from my childhood, including two mentioned in the previous paragraph.

see here: Burton Baths

Firstly, I was born in Burton and was quite familiar with the town during the 60s and early 70s. It’s where my family did a lot of our shopping, and its Victorian era swimming “baths” was where I learned to swim and where I spent many Saturday mornings.

Secondly, while I never personally saw the Sudbury prison, my dad’s cricket team played there once or twice a year against a prison team. For obvious reasons, the prison team was the only one not to play away games, and it was the only time that families weren’t allowed to accompany my dad’s team to a match.

Thirdly, one of the characters recalls the petrifying wells of Matlock Bath; another note of personal familiarity. These wells fascinated and scared me. In reality everyday objects were left in limestone rich waters, and over time the accumulation of limestone upon the objects would give them the appearance of turning to stone. In my childish naiveté I had the fear that if I accidently touched the water I’d be immediately changed to stone.

While those familiar references make these books personally  appealing, they are only an added pleasure, supplementing the intrigue, mystery and unpredictability of each story.

Booth likes to include local geography, history and folklore into his stories. This book has references to caving, centred on cave systems around Castleton. Reading it brought back memories of the claustrophobic feelings I’d experienced in other books where characters had to make their way through dark, narrow underground passages or mine shafts*. One Last Breath gives an added sense of danger to that claustrophobia by weaving within the story the real life account of Neil Moss, a young man who became trapped while exploring a new shaft within the Peak Cavern system. He died and his body couldn’t be recovered.**

Throughout the Cooper and Fry books, the complications of family and family histories regularly feature; such as Dianne Fry’s search for the sister who disappeared when she was a child, and Ben Cooper having to live up to the legacy of his father, a respected policeman killed while on duty.
This book expands the issue of family ghosts, and how the deeds of one generation can effect those of another.

Within this book, Booth manages to bring all of those elements together in its conclusion. And like the books before it nothing is predictable.


Peak Cavern, Castleton


* By Alan Garner, either The Weirdstone of Brisingamen or The Moon of Gomrath – which one I don’t recall, where children have to escape through a narrow tunnel system under the Cheshire landscape.

And Mark Chadbourn’s Underground, based in the coalmines around the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border.



The Three Veras

I know some of this is going over ground I’ve written about before, but my relationship with the work of Ann Cleeves, and the TV dramas inspired by it is an ongoing experience.

My introduction to Cleeves was through the Shetland TV series. After seeing her name on the opening credits I decided to look for her books.

The first ones I found weren’t related to Shetland, but were from her other well-known series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope.

A book shop in Wagga Wagga had a full set of the Vera titles selling for half price, so I bought The Crow Trap, the first in the series.

I read the book quite quickly and enjoyed it enough to regret not buying copies of the others I’d seen in the Wagga shop.

Somehow I managed to justify another 3 hour round trip, during which I was able to buy the remaining half-price Vera books. Unfortunately they had none of the Shetland series.

veraThe saleswoman told me hadn’t read the books but she’d seen and loved the TV shows inspired by them, so I didn’t hesitate to buy a DVD box set of the series when I found one at a significantly reduced price only a week later.

I was disappointed with the first episode. It showed a lot of promise, but I found the ending unconvincing, confusing and rushing to a conclusion that didn’t live up to the preceding hour or so, or to the quality of Cleeves’ writing I’d read to that point. (At that stage I hadn’t read Hidden Depths, the book that particular episode was based upon, so couldn’t compare the TV adaptation with the book).

The next two episodes were based on Telling Tales and The Crow Trap, both of which I’d read prior to watching the DVDs – and again I found them disappointing. In these cases I found the stories had been cut and changed too much, and I felt there was only a slight resemblance to the books.

Things improved significantly when I got to the fourth and last episode of the first series. It had an original story instead of one supposedly adapted from a Cleeves’ book. I found that story gave a different Vera experience all together – the same character, brilliantly played by Brenda Blethyn, but with a much more convincing and satisfying story.

So far I’ve experienced three different Veras.

The first and by far the better of the three is the original, the Ann Cleeves book version.
The second was the disappointing TV version from the stories (very loosely) adapted from Ann Cleeves’ stories.
The third, and my second favourite, almost equal to the written version, has been the Vera of the TV episodes with original stories based on Ann Cleeves’ characters but not her novels.


The Rúin, by Dervla McTiernan

Ní scéal rúin é más fios do thiúr é.
An Irish saying, meaning ‘it’s not a secret if a third person knows about it’.

The title of my book can be read in English, or can be given its Irish meaning. In Irish Rúin means something hidden, a mystery, or a secret, but the word also has a long history as a term of endearment. (Dervla McTiernan)

Ireland and Irish creativity has appealed to me for almost 30 years now. I built up a reasonable collection of Irish music of many genres, as well as books written by numerous Irish writers, ranging from the literary classics (Beckett, Joyce, Yeats) through to more recent writers like Roddy Doyle, Joseph O’Connor and Colum McCann.

Therefore the title, and author’s name helped this book stand out in the bookshop, immediately attracting my attention.

Being a “crime novel” added to the appeal.

McTiernan is an Irish born lawyer who moved to Australia following the Global Financial Crisis.

This, her first published novel, is set in Galway, Ireland and starts with an event in February 1993. Cormac Reilly, a new policeman, finds himself out of his depth when he’s sent to check on what is supposed to be a “minor domestic”.

What he finds at the isolated house becomes significant twenty years later. In 2013, and now a Detective, Reilly is given the task of reinvestigating that old “domestic” as a cold case and finds there are links to recent events.

After the introductory chapters where the cast of main characters are introduced, the book starts to twist and turn, with none of the characters knowing who they can trust.

A constant thread within the story, tying it all together, is the plight of children denied the security and stability of a loving family, and the resulting dangers of institutional neglect and abuse.

Unimaginatively I’ll have to fall back on clichéd term I’ve used several times before: “page-turner”.
It was a very hard book to put down and I read it whenever I could make time. Importantly that eagerness to keep reading was rewarded with a satisfying resolution.

The copy I have includes a sneak peak of “Cormac Reilly’s next compelling case to be released in 2019” – so far I’m resisting reading it. I don’t need to be tempted. I intend to get it anyway.

I wouldn’t miss it.


Author’s website:


A Song From Dead Lips, by William Shaw

SongA Song From Dead Lips is set in the period that brought Abbey Road to fame through its Beatles’ connection.

The body of a teenage girl is found on wasteland near to the Abbey Road studios.  Investigations into her death lead DS Breen and his new assistant WPC Tozer through the worlds of late 60s pop-fandom and post-colonial politics.

I was attracted to this book after reading Shaw’s recent The Birdwatcher. I found out that he’d set an earlier books series in 1960s London. That gave them a strong element of nostalgic appeal.

This book is the first in a series of four and I enjoyed the story and its characters enough to read more of the series when I get the opportunity.

This book (and I assume the rest of the Breen & Tozer series) complement TV shows like Endeavour,   WPC 56 and even Tennison,  all of which give an insight into policing during the 50s, 60s and 70s. The latter two series, as well as this book,  showing up the prejudices faced by women entering the male dominated, often ultra macho world of the police force of those eras.

Shaw creates a convincing late 60s setting for his book: at least one that’s convincing to this reader (a year older than the author) who wasn’t quite old enough to understand or experience a lot of what was happening at the time.

I was a pre-teen during the 1960s, but there was still a lot familiarity in the cultural setting, with its music references and a background of the Biafran war (see video below)

While I was too young to understand the politics at the time, I do remember the slogan “Remember Biafra”, referencing the civil war that caused countless civilian deaths, including innumerable starved children.





Rebel With A Cause, Jacqui Lambie

Jacqui Lambie made a name for herself in Australian politics, sometimes for the wrong reasons. She stormed into the senate as part of a new political party and soon afterwards left that party.

She added to her notoriety when she described her ideal man in an interview, in sexually straight forward terms.

rebelShe has also gained attention for some of her outspoken views on Sharia Law and the dress codes of Muslim women.

And yet despite the controversy and the teething problems experienced by someone new to politics, Lambie has an authenticity lacking in the career politicians making up the majority of places within the Australian parliament.

She was someone willing to put in the time to learn how to get things done, and was not afraid to confront difficult issues, especially those things she knew from personal experience.

Prior to entering politics Lambie had served in the Australian Army, until her medical discharge just short of ten years service. A back injury sustained during that time put an end to her military career and started a decade long struggle with bureaucracy to be awarded due compensation and ongoing help.

A large portion of her autobiography/memoir details that struggle and how it eventually led to her considering a political career – to fight for the rights of similar casualties of the military bureaucratic system.

She writers:

The army is one big family, and you are trained to believe that your life depends on it. When you leave the army, you leave the family, and it is a process of bereavement. Why is leaving the army like mourning a death? You don’t belong to anything or anyone anymore.

Not only had she lost her career, but the very “family” she was required to leave seemed to fight against her afterwards, through the political institution that supposedly helped ex-servicemen and women to move on after their time of service ended.

The part of the book I had most difficulty with was a long section detailing her struggles with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, the majority of which consisted of copies of the ongoing correspondence between medical specialists, legal representatioves and the DVA.
I think that section would have been much more effective if it had been summarised by Lambie acorns a few pages, with the actual documentation being provided later as appendixes.

One of the other issues she addressed in the Senate was the very personal struggle she had with her younger son, revealing his addiction to ice in a one of her senate speeches. She wants to introduce the right for parents to enforce some kind of rehab upon drug affected children who are in no fit mental state to seek help for themselves.

Over time Lambie’s son did seek help. The source of that help was of particular interest to me. He turned to Teen Challenge, an organisation set up decades ago by well-known Christian minister David Wilkerson, subject of the 1960s book and 1970s film, The Cross and the Switchblade.

In the early 1980s I spent some time with Teen Challenge in the red light district of Sydney, reaching out to drug addicts and prostitutes. Later a friend and his family went to work fulltime at Teen Challenge’s rehabilitation centre in NSW.

Late last year Lambie lost her position in the Senate due to an archaic constitutional technicality after finding she had dual Australian, British citizenship through her Scottish father. That dual citizenship allegedly creates a conflict of national interest.  She was one of several victims of that out-dated clause in a constitution created when Australians were still considered British citizens and there was no difference between being Australian and being British.

She intends to stand again at the next election, hoping to win back her seat in the Senate. I hope she does well.
Despite disagreeing with some of her views, I think Australia needs down to earth, motivated, every day people as representatives in all tiers of government, as opposed to “career politicians” who’ve never had a real job outside of the political system.


Details at the publisher’s website:



View From a Low Bough, by Barrie Crowley

I’ve mentioned this book in two earlier posts in which I said that it wasn’t an easy read and that it contains some the very coarse language. It would also fail almost every standard of “political correctness” with its references to “Nogs” (the Vietnamese locals) and “sluts” (local prostitutes).
But among all of the unpleasantness there are some very astute observations about the war in Vietnam and the Australia to which troops returned after their year long posting.

Let’s cut through all the media driven official bullshit. I owe you that much. This, we were told, was a war about a global conspiracy to destroy democracy as we know it. It was a war about the Devil leading the fiendish Viet Cong against the simple gentle peasants of this peace-loving little land, and slaughtering them barbarously.
This is bullshit.
This was in fact about ordinary people working a fertile, beautiful land and paying 90 per cent of their efforts to absentee landlords in Saigon or elsewhere, and was getting nothing in return.
This war was about ordinary people demanding a fairer go, and getting obliterated by the American war machine for daring to ask.”

The author’s year away, while fighting in this American war, made him particularly aware of societal changes that had taken place at home during that year.

That’s what shocked me about coming home. It was another country, another country entirely… it was being occupied: the people, the places, the very structure of our society were being eroded… I’d gone away, presumably to defend my country, and someone stole it while I was away…
the invaders continued to come and set up their tents, and our leaders talked prosperity and greatness ahead – and for them it was true. And they opened the halls of justice and our seats of learning and our offices of sacred trust to the invaders, for sale, for commission. And the people saw it was true and lined up for their share. And those who had no soul and no vision proved adept at bleeding the new system: they flourished and built a proud society around themselves. Based on money.

Crowley also makes this observation about the very vocal anti-war movement of the time, ending the observation with a question worth considering.

We had Moratorium marches here – probably well-meaning people organised them – many marched. But they didn’t march so much to stop the war as to make sure that they or those close to them were not dragged into it. Bullshit you say? Then why are they not marching still?


The Hanging Valley, Peter Robinson

hanging valleyThe Hanging Valley gives a taste of both new and old.

The fourth of Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks books is the first to include a section set in Canada where the writer now lives.

While Robinson takes his protagonist into new geographical territory, away from his Yorkshire home territory, he also, at one point, slips into an old descriptive cliché, defining a woman’s appearance by reference to her “ample breasts”, an example of  the unimaginative descriptions of female characters used too commonly by male writers.

It’s not a major issue in this book, but it’s the kind of thing that I now find grating when I read it. How often does the ampleness (or otherwise) of a woman’s breasts play an indispensable plot point in fiction compared to the frequency of references to them? The extent to which it grates is probably reflected by the amount of time I’ve spent writing about a single instance in the book.

I remind myself that I’m reading something written thirty years ago, so shouldn’t judge it too harshly for featuring writing of its time. I’ll be more concerned if his more recent books continue along the same path.

It’s not hard to acknowledge the period in which they were written. Music lover Banks listens to his favourite recordings on cassette tape, and he flies to Canada on a plane where smoking is still permitted. I quite enjoy that slightly nostalgic view into a past era.

This book starts with a murder near a quiet Yorkshire village, Swainshead, and as previously mentioned the investigation takes Alan Banks to the Canadian city of Toronto. It is clear the author is familiar with both landscapes and his descriptions of Toronto are no less vivid than those of the wild Yorkshire Dales.

“Banks gave the CN Tower a miss, but he walked around the Eaton Centre, a huge shopping mall with a glass roof and a flock of sculptured Canada geese flying in to land at one end, and he visited Yonge and Dundas after dark to watch the hookers and street kids on the neon strip. He took a ferry to Ward’s Island and admired the Toronto skyline before walking along the boardwalk on the south side. Lake Ontario glittered in the sun, as vast as an ocean.”

The book also touches upon a situation I find familiar. As a childhood migrant who left England when I was old enough to remember a lot of my life there, I can identify with the nostalgic feelings of a group of ex-pat men Banks meets in a bar. Long ago I came to the same realisation of the futility of longing for places that no longer exist, or that have only ever existed in nostalgia-tainted memories.

“The longer you’re away, the more you idealize the image of home… of course, what people don’t realize is that the country’s changed beyond all recognition… We’d be foreigners there now, but to us home is still the Queen’s Christmas message, the last night of the Proms, Derby Day, a Test match at Lords, the FA Cup Final – without bloodshed – leafy lanes, a green and pleasant land. Ordered and changeless. Bloody hell, even the dark Satanic mills have some sort of  olde worlde charm for homesick expatriates”

While crime investigation is obviously central to this series of books, and I enjoy the twists and turns of the unfolding mystery, their settings in time and place are what makes them particularly interesting to me. I suppose the appeal relates at least a little to nostalgia and maybe to hints of the futile homesickness described in the quote above.

The DCI Banks Yorkshire based books are set slightly to the north of Stephen Booth’s Derbyshire, within very similar landscapes. So both Robinson’s and Booth’s series fit comfortably alongside each other. Although, when starting a new book by the other author it can take time to get used to stepping across the county border and to re-familiarise myself with the characters of that other place.