Previous Contents Next


The first 1000 words or so of this article are somewhat dark and grim. You might find them upsetting, possibly even triggering. Read them at your own risk.
After that, things cheer up a lot and the article ends on a very happy, very upbeat note.

wot i red on my hols by alan robson (eboracum lacero)

West Yorkshire Born and West Yorkshire Bred

I grew up surrounded by serial killers.

I’m not exaggerating for dramatic effect, That’s just a simple statement of fact. When I was in my early teens children my age and younger were disappearing from around and about. There were stories in the newspapers. Stranger danger was a very real thing to me and to my contemporaries. We had lessons at school. We knew how careful we had to be. Eventually the perpetrators were caught and brought to trial. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were convicted of abducting, torturing and killing five children – the oldest was 17 and the youngest was 10. Brady and Hindley buried their victims’ broken bodies on Saddleworth Moor, which was only a hop, skip and a jump away from my home. As it turned out, I was never in any real danger. Brady and Hindley hadn’t gone hunting in West Yorkshire – they concentrated their affairs mainly around the Manchester area – but if they hadn’t been caught, who is to say that they wouldn’t have eventually branched out and started to extend their territory? Manchester wasn’t all that far away...

A decade or so after Brady and Hindley’s killing spree had petered out, the murdered and mutilated bodies of women started turning up in towns and villages all over West Yorkshire. The killer was quickly dubbed The Yorkshire Ripper by the press. Despite being given massive resources, the police seemed quite unable to track the Ripper down and as the body count increased a palpable sense of fear took over the whole community. My mother point blank refused to leave the house unaccompanied and she was by no means the only woman to react that way. The killings just seemed to go on and on and on, for year after year after year and one of them came very close to home, in every sense of the word. In 1979 the body of Josephine Whitaker was found on the playing field of my old school. I’d left school by then of course,  and so that murder did nor affect me directly, though I certainly found it shocking and upsetting. I shudder to think what effect it must have had on the children who later had to go and play rugby on that field…

Round about the time I emigrated to New Zealand, the Ripper was finally caught and brought to trial. His name was Peter Sutcliffe and it turned out that my father knew him. Sometimes the world is a very small place indeed. Sutcliffe was a truck driver and he’d made several deliveries to the place where my dad worked. On occasion my dad helped him unload his truck and naturally they chatted to each other while they worked. My dad thought that Sutcliffe was a nice chap. He never detected any hint of Sutcliffe’s darker side.

Sutcliffe was convicted of killing thirteen women and attempting to kill seven others. The police believed that Sutcliffe was probably responsible for a further twenty two murders, but there wasn’t sufficient evidence to bring formal charges against him for those deaths. Sutcliffe was sentenced to twenty concurrent sentences of life imprisonment with a recommendation that he not be eligible for parole for at least thirty years. In 2010, the year before Sutcliffe’s parole would come up for review, the High Court re-examined Sutcliffe’s case and issued him with a whole life tariff. That meant he would never be eligible for parole. He would spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Peter Sutcliffe died in prison of Covid-19 on 13th November 2020. Coincidentally, that was my father’s birthday...

Why am I telling you all this? Because I’ve just read a book called I’m The Yorkshire Ripper by Robin Perrie. I’ve read a lot of books about the Ripper over the years but this one is by far the best. Not only does it present a history of the (bungled) police hunt for the Ripper, it also gives the most thorough biography of Peter Sutcliffe himself that I’ve ever read. And most importantly it uses Sutcliffe’s own words to describe the details of the murders he committed. Those he was willing to admit to, anyway. The book also has a long discussion about the reasons why Sutcliffe felt so compelled to kill. Robin Perrie conducted a lot of in depth interviews with Sutcliffe over the years and he built a close rapport with the man. Consequently much of this book comes straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

Perrie also tells us quite a lot about the backgrounds of Sutcliffe’s victims and so, for the first time, Josephine Whitaker became more than just a name to me. I didn’t know her. Nobody in my family knew her. But we could have done. She didn’t live very far away.

As seems so often to be the case, Sutcliffe was absolutely convinced that he was doing God’s work. The voices in his head chose his victims for him and supplied him with convincing reasons for killing them. Sutcliffe took no personal responsibility for what he did, and he showed no remorse. He was just obeying orders. But we all know what a flimsy excuse that is, don’t we?

The book held me grimly enthralled. At one and the same time it was both fascinating and repulsive. I am certain that it is the definitive book about the Yorkshire Ripper. I’ve read a lot of books about him over the years but now that I’ve read this one I don’t think I’ll ever read another. I no longer need to.

Peter Robinson’s Standing in the Shadows is his 28th police procedural novel about Detective Inspector Alan Banks. Unintentionally it has turned out to be the last novel in the series as well. Peter Robinson died shortly after he finished writing it. It tells a complex and very satisfying story. I’m pleased to report that it is also one of the best of the Alan Banks books, a suitable high note upon which to end.

It tells two parallel stories. One, told in the third person, is set in 2019 and it concerns Alan Banks’ investigations into the identity of a skeleton that has been unearthed during an archaeological dig. The skeleton is relatively recent and it seems likely that it is that of a murder victim. Banks is faced with the twin problems of first identifying the body and then trying to find out who killed him.

The second story is told in the first person by one Nicholas Hartley. It begins way back in 1980. Nicholas is a student at Leeds university. One day he returns home from a lecture to find police cars outside his bedsit. Two detectives question him about his relationship with his ex-girlfriend Alice who lives in another room in the same house. Nicholas learns that Alice has been murdered, and that he himself is suspected of killing her. Leeds, in the heart of West Yorkshire, is one of the Yorkshire Ripper’s favourite hunting grounds and aspects of Alice’s death make the police begin to wonder if Nicholas could be the Ripper himself. But eventually it becomes clear that not only does Nicholas have an alibi for the time of Alice’s death, he is also far too young to be the Ripper. When the Ripper first started his killing spree Nicholas was just a schoolboy in Portsmouth which is about as far away from Yorkshire as you can get. The police fail to identify any other suspects for Alice’s murder and no further progress is made with the investigation. The case fizzles out and remains unsolved. Nicholas carries on with his life...

These two storylines alternate throughout the book until finally the past and the present come together in an explosive ending that fair took my breath away.

I was vastly amused by the ironic coincidence of coming across a novel that involved the Yorkshire Ripper as a plot element so soon after I’d read Robin Perrie’s biography of Peter Sutcliffe. I was also highly entertained by the ingenuity and subtlety of Peter Robinson’s story and by the clever way that the plot threads came together in the end. Standing in the Shadows  is a brilliant novel. I’m very sad that there won’t ever be any more books about Alan Banks.

In these days of streaming services it’s become fashionable to binge-watch your favourite shows until your eyes go square and your brain turns to mush and start to leak out of your ears. Ever the rebel, I don’t do that. I binge read novels instead.

My latest binge reading discovery is Tim Sullivan. He’s written five novels (so far) and I’ve just read every single one of them back to back. Well actually I binge listened to them as audiobooks. Most of my audiobook listening happens when I take Jake the Dog for a walk. I found that I was enjoying the stories so much that we actually had to go for extra long walks together so that I could maximise my listening pleasure. It was quite exhausting, but Jake enjoyed the opportunity to do more sniffing than usual so that made it all worth while. When the last word of the last book finally trickled into my eardrums I was left feeling very frustrated. I wanted more! Fortunately there will be a sixth novel published next year. I can’t wait, but I’m afraid I’ll have to.

The books are traditional police procedural whodunnits. Each novel opens with a murder and the rest of the story concerns itself with finding out who did the killing and why they did it. If you check the titles of the novels in the list at the end of this article you will see exactly who gets murdered in each book. It’s quite an eclectic collection of corpses.

As with all the best murder mysteries, the obvious suspects are never the guilty parties and the guilty parties are always the people you least expect to have done it. Red herrings abound and they all smell delightfully fishy. I did say the books were traditional!

But the gimmick that glued my ears to my headphones was the character of Detective Sergeant George Cross himself (don’t blame me for the pun, blame Tim Sullivan). George has been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. He’s fairly high functioning – he would have to be to hold down his job – but nevertheless he has exactly zero understanding of social mechanisms. He doesn’t know how people work, he can’t detect sarcasm or irony and he takes every word said to him completely literally. He has absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever.

You might think that these traits would make him a useless policeman. Surely the understanding of people and their motives is fundamental to the task of investigating a crime? After all, crimes are always committed by people so therefore doesn’t a good policeman need to understand how people think and react? But that turns out to be a superficial judgement. Not only is George Cross very, very good at his job, he actually has the highest conviction rate of anybody in the force. Socially he is impossible to get along with; his Aspergers makes him come across as extremely rude and anti-social. But even his greatest detractors have to admit that he does do his job superbly well. Reconciling all these contradictions is what makes these books so fascinating.

Mainly George’s success rate comes from his attention to detail and we all know that the devil is always to be found in the details. George’s excessive OCD habits force him to dot every I and cross every T in every case he investigates. No stone can ever be left unturned, George would find that unbearable – and if the stones turn out to be a heap of gravel then he’ll happily spend days with a pair of tweezers obsessively turning over every grain of it. That close attention to detail is what gives him his edge. Seemingly inconsequential things that his colleagues overlook because they are inconsequential open doors for George that would otherwise remain closed. It makes him unbeatable when he’s interrogating suspects. He drills down through their stories and eventually catches them in contradictions as they trip over the details. Details are George’s speciality, his super power, if you like.

Tim Sullivan does a brilliant job of explaining how people like George really can fit into the world, albeit a little uncomfortably at times. The books also pack a surprisingly emotional punch as we learn more and more about how George lives his life outside of the office. His main hobby is playing the organ – he practices once a week at his local church. As an aside, he has taught himself how to repair and service organs. After all, he can’t play them if they are broken, can he? He has repaired and serviced several organs in the area. The only charge he makes for fixing the instruments is requiring permission to play them once they are working again. It’s all perfectly logical, to George at least.

He also has a very close relationship with Raymond, his father. Raymond used to be an aeronautical engineer before he retired. He helped to build Concorde, something he’s very proud of. These days he’s a bit of a hoarder. His flat is full of rubbish which he intends to repair "one day"  and perhaps he’ll sell the result on ebay. Or perhaps he won’t. George’s attempts to cope with Raymond’s eccentricities are often quite funny as his autistic rigidity and his love of formal rules of behaviour come into conflict with Raymond’s arbitrary chaos.

As part of the scene setting in the first novel, we learn that George’s mother walked out on the family when George was only a little boy. George has always assumed that she left because she was unable to cope with his Aspergers and he blames himself for losing her, insofar as he is able to blame anyone. He has no real concept of blame of course, so it’s more of a niggle than anything else. Nevertheless it pricks his conscience. As the series progresses, we learn about the real reason for her leaving. To say more would be a spoiler. But the reason does add a sympathetic depth to the characterisation of both George and Raymond that is remarkably insightful and moving.

These are very, very clever books. And what is more, nobody stays still. The characters all grow and learn and change as time goes by. Even George. The jokes are funny, the crimes are horrid, the motives are complex, and the criminals are well hidden in plain sight. I thoroughly enjoyed every single one of the novels and I have no regrets whatsoever about absorbing them one right after the other in a single gigantic gulp. The characters and the settings never grew stale on me. I never felt like I was overdosing.

M. R. C. Kasasian is such a weird name that I was convinced it had to be a pseudonym until I went googling and discovered that Martin Kasasian is a very real person indeed. He was born in Lancashire, but these days he lives in Suffolk. Who can blame him? Every true Yorkshireman knows that Lancashire is a terrible place to live.

His novel The Mangle Street Murders is set in London in the year 1882. Sidney Grice is a somewhat eccentric Sherlock Holmes-like consulting detective who never fails to solve any case in which he takes an interest, though the twisted logic that leads him to form his conclusions is often more than a little dubious...

His current case (and the cases in all the later books in the series) are narrated to us by Grice’s Watsonian amanuensis March Middleton, who is Grice’s ward. March has come to live with Grice following the death of her father. He had been an army surgeon and March had been his assistant for many years. She is well versed in surgical and medical matters and, having lived an army life, she is very familiar with the ways of the world. She is an ardent smoker, a copious drinker of gin and, given half a chance, very liberal minded. She is much more worldly wise than Sidney Grice and she finds it very difficult to live with Grice’s asceticism. He is a vegetarian, a non-smoking, non-drinking puritan who is addicted to tea. But only if it is properly prepared and served in bone china cups…

A lady has been somewhat gruesomely murdered in Mangle Street and the police have arrested her husband for the killing. But did he really commit the crime? The game’s afoot!

I absolutely loved this book, mainly because it made me laugh out loud on several occasions. The plot is complex, the solution to the murder is very twisted, and Grice’s eccentricities (together with his incredible rudeness and pomposity) are a never ending delight. All this is highlighted by March Middleton’s world weary cynicism and her constant internal mockery of Grice’s personality. If you like your books to tell you stories that are extremely dark and extraordinarily gruesome, and if you like your humour to be very, very dry and very, very British you too will love this book. If you don’t, you won’t.

Stephen Leather has written a lot of novels about the exploits of one Dan "Spider" Shepherd an ex SAS soldier who, after he left  the army, started working first for the police and later for the security services. The novels say little or nothing about Shepherd’s years in the SAS – it’s just mentioned as background material to explain his expertise. However over the last couple of years or so Stephen Leather has started writing a series of novellas and short stories about Shepherd’s youth and his time as an SAS trooper. I’ve been lapping them up.

In many ways the stories are just straight forward military porn, as these kinds of slam bang action adventures tend to be. Characters spend a lot of time name dropping the model numbers of various bits of weaponry, and lasciviously discussing the type of ammunition each gun uses, highlighting the advantages and disadvantages of each. Then they go off and shoot a lot of people and the story ends.

To that extent, Stephen Leather follows the conventions precisely. But he adds something that you seldom see in these kinds of stories from other authors. The dialogue ("banter") is often genuinely funny and many of the characters, Shepherd in particular, have a sophisticated appreciation of the politics that drive their missions. Stephen Leather’s SAS troopers are never the pig-ignorant cannon-fodder that play such a large part in other, more typical, stories by other, more typical, authors. Consequently Stephen Leather’s stories come across as multi-layered and they always repay a very close reading. There’s a lot more to them than just the surface action and the thrill of the chase.

As far as I know, Stephen Leather has never served in the SAS. However he has done his research meticulously and his stories all have an air of verisimilitude about them. His main rivals in the field of SAS action adventure stories are Chris Ryan and Andy McNab both of whom did actually serve in the SAS. Indeed, both of them were members of the ill-fated Bravo Two Zero mission that took place during the first Gulf War. They have each written non-fiction accounts of that mission. Amusingly both accounts differ from each other in many important details!

I don’t recall any mention of Chris Ryan’s novels in Stephen Leather’s stories, but he does seem to have some sort of grudge against Andy McNab and many of his stories have Andy McNab jokes in them. In Drop Zone, for example, Shepherd and his troop are in a plane heading off to some trouble spot or other where they will parachute in and start committing mayhem. To pass the time on the journey, one of the SAS troopers is reading an Andy McNab novel and laughing his socks off…

I know nothing about Abbi Waxman. I chose to read her novel The Bookish Life of Nina Hill simply because I knew from the title  that this would be a book about a soulmate, a book about someone who, like me, loved books. What could possibly go wrong? I’m pleased to say that nothing at all went wrong – this was an utterly charming and very funny book about a book lover, just like it said on the tin. I read it with a huge smile on my face.

Nina is the only child of a single mother. She lives in Los Angeles with a cat called Phil. Her mother is Australian and she travels the world taking award winning photographs. Nina seldom sees her, though they often talk on the phone. Perhaps as a reaction against her mother’s wanderlust, Nina never travels anywhere. She has a comfortable life arranged just as she wants it to be. She has a perfect job in a bookstore, she is a valued member of a championship trivia quiz team, and she plans each day of her life meticulously with the aid of a filofax. She organises times to do her laundry and times to cook her meals and she makes sure she schedules plenty of time to do nothing. Doing nothing is her synonym for reading a book. Sometimes she wonders if there might be more to life than reading. But when that dark mood takes hold of her, she just shrugs and picks up a new book. That always cheers her up.

Then a visit from a lawyer turns her whole world upside down. The father whose name she never knew, the father that she didn’t even know existed because her mother always refused to talk about him, has died and left her heaps of money.  Not only that, he’s left her innumerable sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Nina is horrified. These people all live near to her! They all want to meet her and invite her to their social events! She'll have to Speak To Strangers. She never does that, she doesn’t know how to do that. Her life has become a total disaster!

Nina considers her options. Perhaps she could change her name and appearance, but that sounds pretty drastic and besides, she likes her hair the way it is. Maybe she could flee to a desert island but she doesn’t know how to flee, she’s never travelled anywhere. And she’s pretty sure they don’t have coffee on desert islands. She’d never be able to cope with life without coffee. So there’s nothing else for it, she’ll just have to hide in a corner and rock back and forth, something she already does quite a lot of anyway. Somehow it never seems to help. Funny that...

There being no other choice, Nina realises that she will have to come out of her comfortable shell. But she’s going to need a lot of convincing that Real Life(TM) can ever live up to the promise of the vicarious life that she finds in fiction.

And so the stage is set and the play that plays out on it is brilliantly funny, sweetly romantic and just plain nice. I absolutely adored it. If Abbi Waxman is always this good, I’m going to have to search out a lot more of her books.

Robin Perrie I’m The Yorkshire Ripper Mirror Books
Peter Robinson Standing In The Shadows William Morrow
Tim Sullivan The Dentist Head of Zeus
Tim Sullivan The Cyclist Head of Zeus
Tim Sullivan The Patient Head of Zeus
Tim Sullivan The Politician Head of Zeus
Tim Sullivan The Monk Head of Zeus
M. R. C. Kasasian The Mangle Street Murders Head of Zeus
Stephen Leather Spider Shepherd SAS CreateSpace
Stephen Leather The Sandpit CreateSpace
Stephen Leather Moving Targets CreateSpace
Stephen Leather Drop Zone CreateSpace
Stephen Leather Russian Roulette CreateSpace
Abbi Waxman The Bookish Life Of Nina Hill Berkley
Previous Contents Next