A bit more about me, and my life in the Fire Service

People ask “what was the worst fire you went to, what was the biggest fire you went to, what was the worst thing you saw?” The thing that I remember most is “the blue light oasis” What is the Blue Light Oasis, let me explain

When a fire occurs in the night it’s amazing how few people notice. Driving into a residential neighbourhood there is no warning of the devastation you are about to deal with.  The disengaged voice of the sat-nav takes you off the main roads, what few cars are on the roads thin out, shops are replaced by dwellings. The later at night, or earlier the morning, the less lights are on in houses, no people are on the streets. The first indication you get that something is out of place is the reflection of flashing blue lights in the darkened windows as you approach the last turn, or bend in the road. Then out of the peace and quiet you come across twenty or thirty metres of chaos. Fire engines, police cars and ambulances, all with their lights on. The noise of at least one fire appliances engine revving to run the pump. Emergency service crews going about their duty, no different to people doing their daily work chores at two o’clock in the afternoon. Smoke and steam coming out of the affected house, it’s an oasis of activity on a quiet sleepy street. A Blue Light Oasis. I don’t remember making similar observations as a front line firefighter or as the Officer in charge of the appliance. It was probably because I was too involved in what was about to happen, or maybe I’m just getting old and a lot has happened since.

Incidents that stick in my mind probably do so for the circumstances around them more than the fires themselves.

The first fire that sticks in my mind is obviously the first I ever went into. I joined my watch on its first night shift, and at some ungodly hour we turned out to a flat fire above a shop on a neighbouring area. The first two firefighters, or firemen as they were in those days, had just gone through the door. My partner and I were seconds behind them. The stairs to the flat were clear but the entire first floor was full of thick black smoke, the heat coming from my left was almost unbearable. I can’t remember the exact words of my partner but it was along the lines of “get a move on we’re searching the back”. It got no lighter, nor cooler, for a while. The first team had put the fire out in a kitchen. We had searched the flat, nobody was inside, and opened the windows to ventilate. When I came outside into the cold November night steam rose off me and my three colleagues as if we were on fire. My hands and neck stung from the heat of the fire, no gloves or flash hoods in those days. We were covered in black soot, except for having clean faces where our breathing apparatus masks had covered us. I took my tally from the Entry Control Board and looked at the time. It felt like I’d been inside the building for about 2 minutes. It had been nearly twenty.

Over twelve years at one of Britain’s busiest fire stations that was one of thousands of fires I attended as a front line, water squirting, firefighter. How many can I actually remember any of the facts of,Probably less than a dozen. A fire is a fire is a fire unless it’s really unusual.

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Turning out one night I was riding in the middle, the back seat between the two breathing apparatus wearers, on the back of the second appliance. It was a position which meant I had no laid down duties, the entry control officer sat in the middle of the first appliance. My position that night meant I was the general dogsbody on the fire ground, to most incidents. About half past two in the morning the bells went down to a persons reported maisonette fire about a mile from the station, in one of the roughest areas of Birmingham. En-route we received a radio message from Fire Control stating they were taking numerous calls to the incident and that there was definitely people trapped inside. This was pre mobile phones and numerous calls always meant a bad fire. As we turned off the main road towards the estate we saw flames jetting out of the top window of a four storey block of maisonettes. I had seen fires like this before, and I’ve seen many since, but these were the worst. The flames were jetting at least twenty feet from the window horizontally before curling upwards, it was like looking at a huge welding torch; and this was the rear we were looking at. The appliance took a left onto the estate and a right into the cul-de-sac which led to the courtyard surrounded on three sides by late Victorian built flats which had been converted to maisonettes in the 50’s or 60’s. The flats had a staircase at either end and one in the middle which all served a communal open landing on the second floor. The door to the maisonette was half way between the central and right side staircases on the second floor landing. The door was open and the flames in the hall beyond were floor to ceiling. A window to the left of the door had broken and flames were coming from what I later found out was the kitchen. There was a lot of people screaming at us and through the chaos it became obvious that a little girl was in the rear bedroom, the one from which we had witnessed the jetting flames. We ran hoses out from the fire engines, and got water supplied into them. When that was done and the four breathing apparatus wearers had gone in via the flat door I pitched a ladder, with some of the crew of a third appliance which had arrived, to a small bedroom window  on the third floor, directly above the kitchen. Once the ladder was in place I climbed it to be in a position to help any casualties that were brought to the window by the teams inside.  That bedroom room was relatively smoke free and I could hear the breathing apparatus teams shouting on the landing outside the closed door so I climbed in and called to tell them there was a safe route out via the room and ladder. They shouted back saying the fire was out in the kitchen, lower hall, and stairway and that they were tackling the fire in the rear bedroom. One of them called it was safe to open the door but that there was a body immediately outside it.  I cracked the door slightly, there was no smoke, the maisonette was venting via the rear bedroom windows, a badly burned, and obviously dead man lay slumped against the wall at the top of the stairs. The bedroom where the girl was reported to have been was the most significantly damaged. The fire had been so intense it had gutted the room, spalling the plaster from the brickwork, burning through the ceiling to affect the roof structure so badly that the slates had fallen into the room. It took us an hour or more to remove all the debris and expose the badly burned body of a four year old, still lying within the remains of her bed.  It transpired that the little girls Mom was at a party and had left her daughter with her mother. Gran had woken to the sound of something, or somebody in the maisonette. She opened the bedroom door and saw fire so she opened the window and shimmied down a drain pipe leaving her granddaughter in bed. One of the things I really remember was the screams of the young girls mom when she arrived home. I can still hear her wailing for “my baby, my baby”.

That fire was the first time I met a dedicated Fire Investigator, a new role in the British Fire Services. It was also the day I decided that that was what I wanted to do. The fire? It had been started deliberately with somebody pouring petrol and igniting it with a naked flame. The man at the top of the stairs was never identified and was generally accepted as being the arsonist who had been caught in his own fire. Why did he do it? Speculation was he was the boyfriend of the girls mom, a low level drug dealer who had been selling weed out of her home until he had been recently kicked out by her mother when she found out what he was doing. But around there, at that time, the locals never told the police anything.

The first fatal fire I attended sticks in my mind for the simplicity of the scene and the tragic story surrounding it. We were called to inspect a public toilet after a woman had been discovered in one of the cubicles with severe burns. The fire was out when she was found and only an ambulance was called by the person who found her. The ambulance took the woman to hospital where she was pronounced dead. We were alerted by the police and went to the toilets to ensure there was no further danger to the building. The smell of burned flesh is one that you never forget but it surprised me that first timed I smelled it. Inside a public toilet, in a park, in inner city Birmingham in 1983 the overriding smell should have been stale urine. It wasn’t. The old lady had walked to the end cubical early in the morning and set herself alight. She knew what she was doing and had obviously planned her actions. The cubical had a window cill, on which was an empty glass, at the side of the glass sat an empty 50cl bottle of whiskey, next to that was a lighter and an empty bottle of turpentine, and hanging by the crook was an old fashioned wooden NHS walking stick. The toilet seat lid was down and there was burned clothing remnants on the floor. If every picture is worth a thousand words. That’s a thousand words that I will never forget. The lady had apparently been planning the act for a few days. The fact she lived alone with no family around her was probably a big factor, but why like that? I will never understand, and in this case why in a public toilet.

As a Fire Investigator I attended other self immolation suicides, and all the others had one thing in common. The person always committed the act outdoors. My belief, and that of many others, is that the deceased do not want to damage any other property, or leave a mess in their home for other family members to clean up.

The most memorable such case was a young man who committed suicide within the confines of the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, about five metres from the alter. The only call to the Fire Service came from a cleaner in a high rise office block which overlooked the Cathedral from quite a distance away. She phoned 999 and reported a statue on fire within the ruins at about 2 o’clock in the morning. The first fire crew arrived quickly and found a badly burned man smouldering on the stone flag floor. He was obviously dead and they called me out as the Duty Fire Investigation Officer to carry out the investigation. When I arrived the crew and the Police had cordoned off the area leaving the scene inside the ruins intact. A young Scenes of Crime Officer, as they were called at that time, was waiting for me so we could carry out our duties together. It turned out that this was the first incident this SOCO had attended since finishing his training. As myself and the fresh faced SOCO looked in via the gated archway, which was the inner cordon, we looked across the body to the huge empty windows that looked over a sky which was coloured bright orange by the street lamps. It was very likely the spookiest sight I have ever seen in real life. There and then we both agreed that once inside we would not leave the other alone to return back to our vehicles for any kit.

The man had undressed and left his clothes in a neat pile. He had used an A4 pad to write a long and expressive suicide note. He had moved close to a drain and poured the contents of a 5 litre petrol canister over his head, having draped  a large towel over his shoulders before igniting the petrol vapours. He didn’t move around, he just fell where he stood, as was evidenced by the pieces of skin and towel on the floor around him. There was flash plume which ran from him to the petrol canister which had discoloured the flag stones but was only visible once the photographs had been developed.

Empty blister packets of prescription drugs and an empty bottle of Vodka were found near his clothes as was the book he had been reading, one about the Bombings carried out by the allies on the City of Dresden, during the Second World War. Had this affected the place he chose to end his life? I don’t know, but it’s one hell of a coincidence, and at a scene I don’t like coincidences. The scene was really very straight forward, but the surroundings…. It’s still the only fire scene that has ever given me the creeps.

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The last fire I’m going to talk about for now was one in which a man died. To this day I do not know if it was a botched arson or if he intended to die in the fire he had set. The fire happened in a two storey semi-detached house on a suburban street in Coventry. In relation to most fires of this type it happened early in the night, sometime between 9 and 10pm. I was called to an explosion and when I looked at the incident log I could see that a large amount of calls had been received  by the Control Operators reporting an explosion and fire. Messages from the scene indicated that the entire dwelling was alight and that a body had been located. I arrived at the latest Blue Light Oasis about an hour after the first crews, who were still in attendance. Thankfully we have diligent Fire Officers and skilled  Fire Investigators because the attending Police Officer corralled me as soon as I arrived and said to me ” it’s obviously a gas explosion lets get it sorted quick and get away”. His shoulders slumped when I explained to him that you don’t get houses fully involved in severe fire immediately after a gas explosion, and that the blast damage was not consistent with a gas explosion either. His hope of returning to wherever he was dressed up to go had just evaporated, along with the petrol that had been used to accelerate the fire.

The entire house, with the exception of the kitchen had been badly damaged by fire and heat. The stairway, which rose from the hall, about a metre inside the front door, was so badly damaged that the fire crews pitched a ladder up it for safe access. The ground floor front windows had been blown open but the glass was intact. The ground floor lounge patio doors had been blown out and were strewn broken across the back garden, with several pieces of glass embedded in the timber shed about five metres away from the house. Every window on the first floor had been either damaged by the over pressure when the petrol was ignited, or had been broken by the heat of fire.

The very badly burned body of a man was lying face up on the landing across the threshold of one of the rear bedrooms. At that time fire debris covered all but his head, knees and forearms. The heat had forced his body into the pugilistic position in such a severe way his wrists had snapped and the bone shone white in my torch light. Once the debris was removed, to expose the rest of the man, it became evident that his leg was through the rungs of a loft ladder. The ceiling had burned through but the larger joists had survived in places and it was possible to identify the hatch had been in the hall above where the body lay. Working with the Forensic Scene Investigator, as they are now called, I excavated around the body and we were happy that there was no obvious pre-fire injuries before the body was removed.

I asked for the attendance of the Fire Investigation Dog Team, a specialist team of dogs which can locate minute traces of hydrocarbon based fire accelerants, and started to record the scene. Two empty petrol containers were in the rear garden, but above the remains of the patio doors, indicating they had been blown into that position during the deflagration, and therefore were inside the lounge when it happened. Preserving the scene was difficult due to the severity of the fire. Digging out would have destroyed evidence so small pockets of fire kept igniting as some deep debris smouldered. This is a problem almost unique to fire crimes where leaving the scene undisturbed can actually lead to evidence being destroyed. Allowing a very controlled amount of water to be applied to these areas can put the fire out, but balance that against swilling away what might be the last evidence of an accelerant is a headache all fire investigators encounter. In this case, as in all the cases I have used the dog team they came up trumps indicating that an accelerant had been liberally splashed throughout the house, except for the kitchen. The investigation, into the cause of the fire took two days. Even if the cause appears obvious from the start all diligence has to be made to ensure it is correct, and that all other sources of ignition are eliminated.

Why was this fire memorable? Two reasons; all of the Police Detectives that attended at the beginning of the investigation were obviously at an event as they were called. The Detective Constables were in evening dress, as was the Detective Sergeant and the Detective Inspector when they arrived. I will never forget the DI’s face when I asked him if he wanted to enter the scene. Lots of posh frocks and suits got very smelly that night. The second reason was earlier that evening a good friend of mine had just been told he’d secured his dream job as a Fire Investigation Officer. He was in charge of the first crew to relieve the crews who had extinguished the fire. When he arrived he was all smiles. When I passed him the camera and told him to go inside and start recording the scene I saw terror in his eyes for the first and only time. Within five minutes he was photographing everything and the smile was back. He remains to this day one of the best FI’s I’ve ever worked with.

Crooked Heart Lissa Evans

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The Crooked Heart     Lissa Evans

I received this book Friday and I had finished by Sunday. Usually I would sit down and write a blog as soon as I finish, but I have taken 24 hours before I start this one. Why? Because I want to do it justice.

From the very first page I was smiling. Was I supposed to smile at the musings of a woman with some kind of dementia, and the efforts of her ten year old Godson to look after her? Yes I think I was. I don’t think that Lissa Evans intended me to be sad at all reading this book, even if there are quite a few moral dilemmas throughout.

The story starts at the beginning of World War 2 and is based around Noel, a young boy living with, and looking after, his Godmother, the dementia sufferer. I won’t put any spoilers in here but I will say that Noel soon becomes evacuated to St Albans and ends up living with a woman called Vee, her grown up son, and her mother. As is right for the book none of this little family are without a story and Evans manages to weave a plot which involves all of them.

Vee is obviously on hard times and has tried numerous petty crimes to help her and her family struggle along, none of them serious and most of them failures. The trouble is Vee is not very bright. When she volunteers to take on Noel, on a whim, she inadvertently finds the ten year old has the brains that she is missing. Another dilemma, should I really be enjoying a book where an adult takes advantage of the intelligence of a young boy to make her life of crime more successful. Sorry I could not help myself I was willing the pair to get away with their little schemes.

Their adventures take them to London and eventually into trouble. The problems they get in are exasperated by the trouble Vee’s son Donald gets into. With the bombs falling and Londoners hiding in the shelters the story rattles along.

Noel is always the central character he is very clever, well read, and when he wants to be very articulate. Evans has put this brain into a scrawny strange looking boy, not for comedy value, but to make him standout. I hope that in future books we find how he has developed.

I have read Lissa Evans’s Bio online. She has written adult and children’s fiction. In this book she has used a ten year old as her main character and has written it in such a way that, as an adult, I empathised with Noel but never once thought I was reading a children’s, or young adults book. She mentions things that remind me of a young me growing up in the early 60’s. The book transported me back to when a story could be told without violence, sex and swearing. It actually made me think when the last time I had read an adult book like this. I can’t remember one but I am going to try and find more.

I am not sure Lissa Evans will welcome this but I can make one comparison. The first J.K Rowling book saw Harry Potter as a young naïve boy growing up in a strange world. For me Evans’s Noel is at least as well written as Rowling’s Potter, if not better. Harry may have grown up in a fantasy world but Noel is growing up in the very real world of WWII. Lissa Evans has managed to catch that innocent naivety and blend it with the not so innocent naivety of a desperate woman.

I know people can look at dust covers of hardbacks, and back covers of paperbacks, read a quick synopsis of a story and think that it’s not for them. If you do that with this book you’re wrong. As a 52 year old man I loved it. I know my 23 year old daughter will love it.

Please read it and enjoy it as much as I have.

Mari Hannah The Kate Daniels series

Mari Hannah DCI Kate Daniels Series

The Murder Wall

Settled in Blood

Deadly Deceit

Monument to Murder

I am going to come out with it from the start, I love these books. Those of you who read my first blog will know that I rarely get into books based in England but I was hooked on these from the start.

When Deadly Deceit popped up on Amazon, as a recommended read, I read the review and liked what I saw. Several reviews later I had decided it was a book I wanted to read but, it was the latest in a series, and that meant I had to read the others in order first.

The Murder Wall introduced me to DCI Kate Daniels and her colleagues at the Northumbria Police Murder InvestigationTeam. The team is made up, as any such teams are, of a collection of individuals. Each individual has their own backstory which runs through the series of books. These sub plots add to the main story and help to keep the pages turning. The two young Detectives, who joined the team together, a woman with great computer skills and a man who is excellent at the tedious life of the observation specialist; the middle age detective with gambling problems who is trying to put his life back together; and another who loses the trust of the team; the crusty old hand Detective Sergeant who Kate relies on professionally and in her personal life; Kate’s mentor, and Boss, Detective Superintendent Bright, his own life in turmoil; and a myriad of bit part Police characters which drift in and out of the books always at the right time and in the right context.

Kate herself is struggling with the break-up of a relationship with Criminal Profiler Jo Soulsby, and throughout the series this relationship teeters on the brink of being totally destroyed whilst almost reforming. Kate suffers from what all high achieving Police Officers suffer, the “job comes first” and everything else just has to wait. We see Kate struggle with this, being torn between work and relationships with Jo, her father, and her friends. Needless to say the job usually wins.

The Murder Wall is set a year after Kate Discovered two bodies in a Church, an incident that is still playing on her mind, and a crime she did not solve. When the body of a man is found in a flat in Newcastle the crime is investigated by Jo’s team. It’s her first as Senior Investigating Officer, a chance she has been waiting for but is sullied by the fact that Jo appears to be tied into the crime. Her dedication to her friend conflicts with her professionalism and at times interferes with the relationship she has with her team and her mentor Bright. As the investigation unfolds it becomes clear that Jo, or the team, have an enemy close at hand who is hampering the investigation. The end of the book….. well it’s tense and it would be better if you read it. I hate spoilers in reviews.

Settled Blood. The team investigate the suspicious death of a young girl found dead in the middle of nowhere. The Police initially wrongly identify the girl as being the daughter of a local multi-millionaire who appears to own half the County. When he attends the hospital to identify the body he realises it’s not his daughter, but does identify the clothing she was wearing. This leads to a twisted story of kidnapping and murder. Kate retains the role of SIO and leads her team through the investigation uncovering an historic wrong doing by a senior officer which may have an effect on the case. In many other books writers look for extreme cases to convey this part of a story, but Mari Hannah has found a small indiscretion, which I am sure happened many times in the real world, which comes back to bite somebody on the bum, which I’m sure has also happened many times.  It fits the plot perfectly and aids in the mystery leading up to a suspenseful conclusion.

In this book Hannah introduces the Mountain Rescue Service, again completely in context with the story and the scene in which it is set. As with every other aspect of her books she has obviously spent time researching or working with the people she writes about. The use of the rescue team, and the interaction between them and the MIT, is just as it would be during a professional investigation. Again no spoilers so not much about the plot but believe me its good.

Deadly Deceit It’s not often I come across a completely original plot, I’ve been reading this genre of books for 40 years, but in this story Hannah nails a brilliant one. The book starts with a house fire and, in a separate incident, a multi-vehicle Road Traffic Collision. A man and child are killed in the house fire whilst several people die in the RTC. Kate is on route to the house, with her Crusty Trusty Sergeant, when they come across the RTC and have to stop to render assistance before carrying on to the house. The house fire is quickly diagnosed as being started deliberately and the MIT take over the crime, investigating the murder of a father and his son. It is soon discovered that one of the victims of the RTC was also murdered, after the crash. The investigation of the crash murder is also carried out by the team, although they are split over the two scenes stretching their resources. This one I’m definitely not going to spoil by going into the details of the story but I will say this. The characters are brilliantly portrayed well written and again perfect for the story.

Monument to Murder, so far the last in the series and every bit as good as its predecessors. This incident sees Kate’s team investigating when the skeletal remains of two girls are found in a beach dune. Again Mari Hannah intertwines a second case as the daughter of a friend goes missing in what appears to be a related incident. The friend is Emily McCann, a Prison Psychologist who is recently widowed. She and Kate share a mutual friend, Jo Soulsby who now works in the prison, and the relationship between the three forms a big part of this book.

The crime scene is close to the prison and a long way from Newcastle, forcing Kate to uproot her team and work from a remote Police Station, bringing her into close contact with Jo. A few will they-won’t they moments crop up but again they are all perfect for the story and not at all distracting.

Whilst investigating the murder Kate attempts to help Jo and Emma investigate the disappearance of Emma’s daughter. Neither the murder investigation, nor the investigation into the disappearance of Emma’s daughter can be called a subplot as they both command equal time in the book. At times it appears that the crimes are related, at others it seems obvious that they are not. It was not till the last few pages that I worked out whether they were or not. Again no spoilers you’ll have to read it for yourself.

I always have trouble with UK based Police procedural books, mainly because I have worked in that environment and always think things like; “that’s not right”, “that would never happen”, or “they would never act like that”. In none of the four books did any Mari Hannah  make any of those thoughts cross my mind, and as an ex Fire Investigation Officer in one of the biggest Fire Brigades in the country that takes some doing, especially in Deadly Deceit.

Every scene is realistic, sometimes in its simplicity; every character brings to mind people I have met; all the crimes are plausible, in short these books are the real deal.

For me, move over Colin Dexter, I have a new favourite British Crime Writer, and she’s brilliant.

The Axeman’s Jazz Ray Celestin

The Axeman’s Jazz Ray Celestin

Rarely do I pick up a book based on a true event that I have never heard of; this book sent me on a bit of a hike through the internet researching the facts of a series of crimes which took place in New Orleans just after the end of the First World War, The New Orleans Axe Killer Murders, for that alone the Axe Mans Jazz was worth reading, but that’s not the only reason, this book is brilliant.

Set in 1919 the story centres on the hunt an Axeman who is killing couples in the dead of the night, unsurprisingly with an axe.

Three separate inquiries are carried out by the central characters, all cleverly and logically woven together, bringing the book to an exciting end.

Detective  Michael Talbot leads the New Orleans Police investigation. Talbot is an outcast amongst his fellow officers and struggles with a personal secret.

Luca D’Andrea, an ex-detective who is released from prison at the start of the book and investigates the murders on behalf of the Mafia.

Ida Davis a young mixed race girl who works for a Detective agency, but takes on the investigation on her own, to prove to her boss she is capable. Ida has a friend who helps her, a young Jazz Musician called Lewis (Louis) Armstrong; and yes it is that one.

Ray Celestin has written an excellent book. He has taken known facts, including a letter purportedly written by the murderer and published in a local paper, and woven them into a story that held me captivated from the start. His description of New Orleans transported me to the city in the early 20th Century. At times he draws comparisons between 1919 New Orleans and Victorian London, and of course between these murders and those of Jack the Ripper.

His characters fit so well into the story, and are so right for the time it is set in; I wondered whether they were all based on real people. The Lewis Armstrong character is heavily based on the early life of the legendary Louis Armstrong and much of the book revolves around bars and boats where he played in his early career.

The book covers the uncomfortable issue of the racism of the time well. It is clever tool that Celestin uses by having white, black and mixed race characters as the spine of his story, allowing the reader to be taken to any quarter of the city.

Celestin uses a tropical storm to bring the story to an end, like the storm itself the last part of the book builds into an intense crescendo, and like a storm once it has gone a calm settles.

It’s clever, the real Axeman Murderer was never identified but the killings did stop following the storm. Celestin uses a bit of literary licence to let the storm tidy up some lose ends but nothing that distracts from the story.

This is Ray Celestin’s first novel. I’m looking forward to his next.

If you haven’t read The Axemans Jazz yet, I envy you. All I can say is pour yourself a bourbon, put Jazz FM on the radio and cancel any appointments you’ve got for a couple of days. You are going to love it

Cuckoo’s Calling ???

The Cuckoo’s Calling ???

In my first blog I mentioned that although I loved J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, I had not read any of her Robert Galbraith-Cormoran Strike Books.

Well the good people of The Crime Vault (www.thecrimevault.com   @TheCrimeVault) kindly sent me a copy of the Cuckoo’s Calling, the first of the series, and asked me to review it. So here is my first ever book review, I’m not going to give the story away by rambling on about the plot I’ll just tell you what I thought about it as a book.

The story introduces two main characters, Cormoran Strike, Private Detective, and Robin Ellacott, a Secretary from a Temping Agency.

I have to admit to a hint of dread when Strikes character was first described; the thought “oh no not another Detective with a stereo-type flawed character”; but although he’s got all the usual traits, from a broken family, recently out of a rocky relationship, homeless-sleeping in the office, and a new one on me, a false leg following an injury whilst serving in the army, I have to say I quickly took to the guy.

Robin, his side kick secretary, a plain-Jane who quickly shows her worth and skills for research, compliments Strike perfectly.

The story revolves around the death of a young Model/Socialite who’s famous for being famous. I think we can all think of people who fit into this category but being so soon after her own tragic death the only person I could think of was Peaches Geldof.

Galbraith (we know its Rowling but let’s respect the name on the cover) takes us to rough London pubs, a top fashion designers studio, and a multi-million pound property in Mayfair, each of which is described in such a way that you feel like you are there, and you belong.

She introduces a string of characters from an overly camp fashion designer, to a street girl with mental issues; from over-bearing lawyers to a drug addict who has lost her children. In each case the person is there for a reason, there is no writing for writings sake, each person has a role in the story and to be honest they are all perfect for the role. In my professional life I have met all of these people; they might not have the same names but believe me she has described people I have met, and she describes them well.

The story itself is mainly told from Strikes point of view but there are a couple of times the reader is kept in the dark about his thoughts. There is one scene where he asks Robin to look at a series of photographs, the reader is told what they are of, but they are not described. She is told if you look at them you will see the vital clue that leads Strike to solve the case, or rather explain a key part of it. I can see this being a big reveal if the books are ever made into a TV series, or films, but it was frustrating to have this one important part of the story being described vaguely, until it was explained much later in the book.

Did this spoil the book, no. I have read a lot of this genre and I have to say I can usually see the end coming from a mile away, not this time.

The story, unlike so many others, did not make it glaringly obvious from the beginning what the outcome would be. Nor did it, like many others, introduce a twist 20 pages from the end which would have made it impossible for the reader to guess the ending.  The plot starts with a death, and ends with it being solved. There is nothing in between to confuse the reader, the ultimate reveal comes as no surprise but I cannot quite work out when I knew how it was going to end.

The book meanders through the crime and opens up a few side stories, and characters, which I can see being revisited in later books,

Will I read any more Robert Galbraith books? The Silkworm, the second of the series, was on my Kindle before I’d finished The Cuckoo’s Calling.

I recently read that Rowling has stated that she has at least seven books in mind for Robert Galbraith to write. We all know what happened the last time she wrote a series of seven books. So whether she calls herself Galbraith or Rowling I will definitely be looking forward to the next release.

Did the Cuckoo Call???? Oh Yes!!!

My Life in books

This is my first blog. As you can tell from the title I am a bookworm. If you ask my wife she’ll tell you I’m like a chain smoker, as one book is coming to an end I have to have another ready to read, she’s right, maybe I should have called this blog the book addict.

I couldn’t begin to catalogue the books I have read, so I’m not going to try. What I am going to do is introduce you, to me, by telling you what I was reading, or more like who I was reading, as I made my way from what I call Senior School, or as the kids today call it High School, up to today and hopefully well into the future.

My first conscious memory of reading a book for pleasure, and not because a teacher told me to, was in my first year at Senior School, it was one of the Hardy Boy series by Franklin W. Dixon. I don’t know how I found it or if somebody gave it me. It was a story written about 2 brothers and their friends solving mysteries in America. If you can imagine a cross between Scooby Doo and the Secret Seven then you can imagine what the books were like. To an 11 or 12 year old from a Birmingham Housing Estate this book opened my eyes to the world beyond school and the boredom of home.

Believe it or not I had an evening and Saturday job (at that age) and looked forward to school holidays, and maybe the occasional illicit day off, when I could catch a Bus into Birmingham and visit WH Smiths or Hudsons Bookshop.

It was on these visits that I started browsing the shelves and realised that there was quite a few books in the series, and so began a habit I still have today. I had to read the series but I had to read it in order. I can actually remember the sales assistant in Hudsons looking over the counter at me when I asked him if it was possible to order books. Looking at the list of these books now, at least 58, I don’t think I ever completed the set but I know I would have got all the ones available in the UK at the time.

My Dad was also a big reader and when I was about 13 I remember picking up one of his discarded paperbacks The Winged Escort by Douglass Reeman. I’m fairly sure it was the cover that attracted me, a painting of a Swordfish plane attacking a battleship, because it resembled the Commando Paperback booklet/comics I spent a lot of time reading.

My trips to Birmingham now resulted in me returning home with a Reeman Naval novel when I failed to find any Hardy Brothers books. I eventually read all of the Douglas Reeman books and think the ones I read before I left school had an influence on my choice of my first job.

The Hardy Boys and Douglas Reemans naval novels were not the only books I read when I was in school. When I wasn’t at school, working, or playing football with friends my nose was firmly in a book, with the radio on in the background. Unfortunately none of the books I read were on the reading list for my English exams, and those that were held no interest to me, so like the rest of my exams English Literature was a bit of a failure.

I didn’t like school so I left at the earliest opportunity and joined the Merchant Navy just before I was 16. After 13 weeks at the training college (no qualifications required) in Gravesend I had a week at home before joining my first ship. Over the next five years I travelled the world with Shell Tankers UK Ltd on ships of all sizes. What most people don’t realise about being on merchant ships is that the crews are small, often only 36 even on a Super Tanker. Each crew member has their own cabin and works 8 hours a day. I was a Deck Hand so my days were usually split into 4 hours on 8 hours off seven days a week, 6 months at a time. That’s a lot of down time. What most people don’t know is that there was an unwritten agreement that whenever you joined a new ship you took at least 5 or 6 new paperbacks with you, and that once you had read them you put them in the ships “library”, usually a cupboard in the mess room, where they were picked up and returned by others until they were too tatty to read.

It was on my first ship, a gas tanker that ran backwards and forwards between North Africa and Northern Europe, that I found my next set of novels. Again I was drawn to a painting of a Second World War scene on the cover. Looking on the inside of the cover I found that the author had written a series of books and one of them was semi-autobiographical. I read that one first, The Legion of the Damned  introduced me to Sven Hassel  and his band of German Soldiers and their exploits during the war. The ships library had copies of all of the books in the series and I remember lying in my cabin when I’d finished the last one thinking, “what am I going to do now”. The tankers had a great social life and I’d made some good friends, but when I finished the last book I missed the main characters as though they had been real people. Sad I know.

I drifted around the one off novels by people like Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley. I remember Wilbur Smith and not being able to make up my mind weather I liked his work or not, but I read most of them anyway.

The next must read author I found was Robert Ludlum. The first book I read was The Matarese Circle, it was the first Cold War thriller that really got me hooked, and they stay my favourite genre today. I managed to read his back catalogue at sea and bought his new books as they were released. Has anybody ever read a better trilogy than the original three Bourne books, I haven’t. Unfortunately the latter ones by Eric VanLustbader just don’t measure up.

Somewhere along the line I discovered Len Deighton, via his novel Bomber. Although this was a storey based in the Second World War I enjoyed Deightons cold war books nearly as much as the Ludlum books.

One of the last Authors that I discovered whilst at sea was Nelson DeMille, via Cathedral, and By The Rivers Of Babylon,  excellent books that introduced the subject of Terrorism into my readings. I still look forward to the publication of his books. He is not as prolific a writer as some, and I think he proves the rule that I sometimes adopt when looking at new authors. If they’ve only been published for 10 years, but they have 20 books in print, the stories can’t be that good. I’d rather see an author publishing a book every 18 months or so, it will always be worth waiting for. I know there are some exceptions to this rule, but I haven’t found many.

So I left the Merchant Navy at the age of 20 and went straight to the Recruit Training Centre of the West Midlands Fire Service to start what would be a 30 year career.

The first 12 years I was in the Brigade I was at one of the busiest, if not the busiest station in the UK. It was a busy time in my personal life as well as wife number 1 came and went, maybe the least said about that the better. But then my second wife came along, followed shortly after by my lovely Daughter. We are still happily married after 23 years, and people said it would never last, and our daughter is now 22. During those 12 years I always had a spare time job, there always seemed to be something that needed paying for, but I was never without a book.

Stephen King books came and went. He’s one of those Authors whose books are like marmite to me; I either love them or hate them. Sometimes I’ve been enjoying his books but have had to stop halfway through, not bored but needing to read something else. I always go back and finish them off if I’ve got that far, but there are a few that have been dumped after the first 100 pages. My Favourite King books? Needless Things, Pet Cemetery, and, It, I still hate clowns following that.

King wasn’t the first horror author I read. I remember reading James Herbert’s Rats, and thinking every creak of a floorboard was a rat heading my way. King and Herbert are the only 2 horror authors I’ve ever really read, when they’re good, they are good; but when they’re bad, they really are bad. I just don’t think I’m very good at suspending reality.

So amongst lots of other books in the mid-late 80’s I discovered one of my all-time favourite writers, Tom Clancy. Like millions of other people around the world I read The Hunt for Red October, and I was hooked on the Jack Ryan series but this time I was in from the start and had to wait patiently for each new book, not something I’m good at. Clancy’s books were the first ones I bought in Hardback as I couldn’t wait for the paperbacks to be published. As well as the Ryan books I enjoyed Red Storm Rising, a one off based on an escalating war which engulfs Europe and threatens to become a 3rd World War. I  remember thinking, as I read it, this is uncomfortably close to becoming reality, it is still one of the best books I have ever read. People often said that Clancy got very close to the truth, and some accused him of having some kind of inside information from the  US Government agencies. In 1995 he released Debt of Honor ( I know but that’s how he spelled it, he was American) in which a Japanese Terrorist flies a Boeing 747 into the Capital Building in Washington DC. Again I remembered thinking that was one hell of a way to committee a terrorist attack on the States. We all know what happened on 11th September 2001 I hope Clancy’s book didn’t give somebody the seed of an idea. Unfortunately I found all of Clancy’s spin off books, written in collaboration with others, the Ops Centre, and Net Force books to be disappointing and gave up on them after the 2nd of each series.

John Grisham is an excellent writer who introduced me to court room dramas. I found Grisham in the early 90’s. I had started to study and was taking Fire Service Exams and needed something to take my mind of the mind numbing lists which made up a lot of the study for those exams. Grisham transported me to the Southern States to a racially charged murder in A Time to Kill. I have read every one of his books. Sometimes I read that he’s accused of “the same old, same old”, but I disagree. There are 2 things you can be sure of with Grisham; a cracking story, and an unpredictable ending. It’s not always happy ever after with John Grisham.

In the mid 90’s I started moving through the ranks in the Fire Service until, in 2000, I worked my way in to my dream post. I spent the last 12 years of my career as a Fire Investigation Officer. Basically, along with 5 other specially trained Officers, we investigated the cause of all; large fires, fires in which people died or were seriously injured, and all major arson cases, in the West Midlands and latterly Staffordshire. As you can imagine the studying got serious at this point as I gained Forensic Qualifications to sit alongside my Fire Service ones, and in that post research and learning never stopped. I still found time for books but my choice of genre changed.  Considering I now had knowledge of Forensics, and British Police and Court Room procedures I surprisingly started to read books set in these fields.

The first Author I found, who shared a Forensic background, was Patricia Cornwell. Reading the Scarpetta series in order I enjoyed the first six or seven books, when she wrote mainly about the life and investigations of Kay Scarpetta. These were excellent books, the Body Farm, is another book that ranks amongst my favourites; but as her niece Lucy became more of a James Bond Figure in her books they started to lose some credibility with me. Like I said, I have difficulty in suspending reality. I haven’t read the latest 3 she has written in the series. For me it’s a shame she moved too far away from reality but somebody must like them, she’s selling millions and good luck to her.

You will have noticed that most of the books I read appear to be by American Authors. I think it’s because more actually happens over there and you can actually imagine most of the stories because they are not far from actual occurrences.

Having said that in the early 2000s I sustained a back injury which tendered me bed ridden for three months before I had an operation to remove and fuse some discs. This was pre e-books and my wife was dispatched to buy my books, which I was getting through at a prestigious rate. I had loved the Morse TV series since it started, and in an attempt to make things easy for her I asked her to get me Colin Dexters omnibus editions of the Morse Books. These were not only brilliant but in my opinion should be read by High School students to show how society, the Police, the way crime is investigated, and life in general changed through the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. It was fascinating to read about a pre computerised, pre mobile phone, society. No DNA, blood only matched by type, police officers smoking at crime scenes, officers openly racist and sexist. As the books progressed through the years it was easy to see Morse struggling to come to terms with this new world whilst his Sergeant, Lewis, attempted to keep him on track and in bounds. If I hadn’t read them all, one after another, I might have missed some of the nuances of this. If you ever read this Mr Dexter thank you for getting me through quit a rough few months.

At the same time I was watching the TV news and was astonished to see that children and adults alike were queuing for nights awaiting the latest in a series of novels by somebody I’d never heard of, J.K. Rowling. Curiosity got the better of me and I asked my long suffering wife to go back to the book shop and pick up the first of the series, at that time I didn’t even know what it was called, and so the children’s book Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone was dropped on my bed with a look of “really” written all over my wife’s face.  Well I was hooked straight away; my wife went and got me the others in paperback. The Goblet of Fire was purchased in hardback, as were the rest of the series as soon as they were released. Yes I was one of the adults standing outside my local Sainsbury’s to buy The Deathly Hallows on the day it was released.

I said earlier that I Had only read 2 horror authors, Herbert and King, that may not be true. Rowlings Harry Potter books got darker as the series progressed.  In my opinion The Half Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows, are much darker and scarier than anything else I had read to that time. As a series of books, despite what the critics say, and in agreement with millions around the world, I think it’s one of, if not, the best.

I’ve not yet read the books she writes under the name Robert Galbrait. I don’t know why, maybe I’m a bit worried I’ll be disappointed.

Over the next few years I drifted through several authors Sam Eastland’s Inspector Pekkala books, set against the second world war (again) a Russian detective works on cases for Stalin. David Downings Station Books, A series of espionage books about an Anglo-American in Germany at the start of events which led up to World War 2.

Jayne Casey and Sharon Bolton, both write excellent crime drama novels strong and gritty with twists that take the plot down unexpected avenues.

My wife had been saying I should have an e-book reader for some time, but I was clinging to the fact that I liked books you could hold. I still think opening a brand new book is one of the best feelings; but Christmas 2011 she gave me a Kindle for Christmas. Ok I admit it I was wrong, I’m on my second one now and it goes everywhere with me.

What the Kindle, and the Amazon Store, have allowed me to do is find books and Authors I would never have found by browsing book shelves in any bookstore I happened to pass. One such writer is one of my current favourites. C.J.Box.

C.J.Box is an American author who has written a series of books about Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett. I read about Box somewhere online and found that all of his books are available for the Kindle. I downloaded Open Season and was instantly hooked. Box’s storylines, his descriptions of the countryside around him and the subplots of his family make for excellent reads. He has also written some stand-alone novels, in which some familiar characters turn up.  If you have never read one of his books, get your hands on Open Season, I’m sure you’ll end up buying the lot.

In 2012 after exactly 30 in the Fire Service I hung up my kit for the last time and walked out of my last Fire Station. I now work lecturing on Fire Forensics around the UK, travel time equals reading time. I’ve also been lucky enough to have a couple of nice long haul holidays, I’m not a good flyer so plane time equals reading time, and we all know that there’s only one thing to do around the pool with a drink in your hand, read.

In Aruba last summer I read a one-off book that is one of the best I have ever read Antonio Garrido’s The Corpse Reader. The book is set in ancient China and is inspired by a real person who is considered one of the earliest people to use science to solve crimes. It is a magical book which is well worth a read.

This has been a very potted history of my reading, which is no way a list of everything I’ve ever read, far from it. I just wanted to let you know me by the books I can remember reading at certain times in my life.

Who am I reading now? Greg Isles. I saw Natchez Burning in Tescos about 2 months ago. The fly cover  described a storey which spanned several generations in the Mississippi Town of Natchez. The way the book was described it appeared to be the first in a new trilogy. So I read it and loved it but in reading Isles’ back catalogue I have found that there has been 3 previous books set in the same town with the same characters so if I was you I would read The Quiet Game first.

Isles’ books are similar to John Grisham’s but with no filters, if they were films Grisham’s would be a “U” certificate, Iles would be an “X”. At times they can be a tough read, emotionally, and they certainly challenge the reader’s morality at times, but wow they are brilliant.

If you have enjoyed this first blog hopefully you’ll read the ones I write later.