Sunday, 6 August 2017

Darker days: the 60s/70s maniac explosion

We’re lowering the tone to a dangerous level this week, conjuring up memories of a past so dark that many among us who were there at the time have likely blotted them out. We’re going to be recollecting the 1960s and 1970s, and exposing ourselves to some of Britain’s worst real-life criminals and the terrible atrocities they inflicted on us during that turbulent, rough-and-ready age.

In the same spirit, I’ll today be reviewing and discussing BLOOD AXE, Leigh Russell’s unrelenting tale of a criminal gone mad on the streets of urban Britain, and the cop who investigates the case so hard that he sacrifices almost everything he has in the process. As usual, youll find that review and discussion towards the lower end of today’s blog.

Before any of that, I can announce that next week we’ll officially be revealing the cover to my next Lucy Clayburn novel, SHADOWS, which hits the shelves on October 19 this year and puts our feisty female cop on the trail of a ruthless gang of armed robbers who always hit their targets with maximum brutality and bloodshed.

In sync with today’s overarching theme of narcissistic violence in a world devoid of pity, Lucy soon learns that the most frightening thing about opponents this extreme is not their preparedness to kill, but the void where their humanity is supposed to be, the utter absence of any degree of human love or charity.

Which brings us smoothly onto today’s main feature. An article I’ve put together this last week or so, much of it from memory, on the subject of a strange, anarchic age which, by the time it arrived, had seen so many sacred cows cruelly slain that it was inevitable human victims would start to follow.

All you have to do, if you’re old enough, is throw your mind back 30/40 years, to …

DAYS OF INDELIBLE DARKNESS        

If you grew up in the UK of the 1960s and 1970s, as I did, you experienced a world that would be completely unrecognisable to young people today.

Okay … we’ve all heard the usual criticisms about that long-ago (and much defamed) era. Namely, that as a nation we drank too much, smoked too much, ate the wrong things, that we were innately racist, and that, most unforgivably of all in modern eyes, our society as a whole was self-indulgently sexualised: our book covers had never been more lurid, girlie mags were not just confined to the top shelves, our cinemas showed nothing but porn, and blue comedians dominated our TV schedules – I even remember one amazing Saturday morning when the lovely Sally James presented the kids’ show, TISWAS, naked in a bubble bath!!!

Not all of us might consider that latter detail a problem, but there actually was a downside to living in that period. The counter-culture rebels of the mid-60s had ushered in an age of permissiveness, which for some opportunists quickly morphed into something much more unpleasant: a time of misogyny and exploitation. It brought us increased drugs problems too, and quite a bit more ‘angry young man’ violence – and not just on stage and screen; the 60s saw countless Bank Holidays disrupted by mods v rockers incidents, while in the 70s, winter weekends were repeatedly marred by widespread football hooliganism.

But it wasn’t all bad for us youngsters, especially if we liked the fictional scary stuff.

Unlike today, tales of horror and the supernatural were easily accessible through mid-evening network television shows like  THRILLER, BEASTS and SUPERNATURAL, not to mention cheaply-priced paperbacks, which we could afford with our pocket-money and which would be sold to us by cheerful shop-ladies who’d never ask us our age (okay, I’ll admit it, you might have got smacked if your dad found you in possession of some gore-filled movie magazine like MONSTER MAG, or an issue of the uber-violent comic, ACTION, or maybe if he discovered a volume of the PAN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES next to your bed … but you got smacked an awful lot in those days anyway, so it seemed like a price worth paying).

No, it wasn’t too bad if you were a kid back then, so long as you were also a horror freak.

Unless, of course, you considered CRIME a problem … because that is the point at which 60s/70 horror stories stop being funny.

A new age of violence

It would be completely wrong to claim that violent and sexual crimes were inventions of the late 20th century. We all know that we can trace our gangsters, rapists and serial killers back to the dawn of civilisation. But in the 60s and 70s – or so it seemed to me – it was almost as if the entire criminal underworld had suddenly taken its gloves of. Maybe it was just that my generation were finally becoming old enough to pay attention to the news, but suddenly vicious murders appeared to be happening everywhere, often set against dismal urban backdrops, and perpetrated by offenders who were more ruthless, crazed and sadistic than any of those who had gone before them. 

And they were dealt with starkly by the media, newspapers and TV bulletins delivering the full stories to us in the most unstinting fashion, sparing us no cruel or gruesome detail.

And, on reflection … why wouldn’t they?

In an age when the body-counts on DR WHO often matched those on war films, at a time when Bonfire Night was preceded by safety warnings on early-evening TV displaying graphic images of burned children (check out the kid on the right ... who was able to stare at the sunset because he had no eyes!), in an era when it was all too easy for 12-year-olds to sneak in through the unalarmed back doors of local cinemas to catch movies like CLOCKWORK ORANGE, SOLDIER BLUE, STRAW DOGS and THE DEVILS (and again, only at the risk of getting a clip round the ear if caught), why would anyone think we youngsters couldn’t take it?

So … could we?, I hear you ask.

Yeah, course we could. If anything, it made us streetwise, woke us up to stranger-danger, and informed us in no uncertain terms that childhood was over.

And yet now, even having become a thriller writer in my adult years, I still have indelible and sometimes vaguely disturbing memories of the crime in that period: the photofits on the evening news (they never looked even remotely human, which made them all the scarier); the column-inches of darkly luscious prose describing the streets of fear in depressed towns where killers were on the loose; the newsreels showing search-lines moving morosely across desolate wastelands; and then, when these maniacs were finally caught, the grainy footage of their humped and handcuffed forms with blankets thrown over them as they were led by harassed-looking coppers through the baying mobs gathered outside police stations or courts.

Death by hanging was abolished for murder in Britain in 1965, but adults at the time remembered it well enough and many regretted its loss, an opinion that was often expressed loudly when these crime sprees were in progress.

And almost invariably, the faces of the guilty, when they finally appeared in the press, looked as if they belonged on the gallows (check out mass killers Graham Young, left, and Patrick Mackay, right). I don’t think there was ever an era in British history when criminals looked as much the part as they did in the 1960s and 1970s.

But enough of my inane rambling.

To really try and capture the atmosphere of that sleazy time, and the edginess of those streets we all romped through with the backsides hanging out of our jeans, only scattering back home when darkness fell (or not, depending on how fearless we thought we were!), the toughness of the cops (who had very hard hands, trust me!), and the desperate, pre-DNA war they waged against a new age of unspeakable deviancy, here, in no particular order, I’ve selected my 15 Most Shudder-Inducing Memories of 60s and 70s Crime:  


Mary Bell

In an era when children were still held to be innately innocent, the crimes of Mary Bell completely stunned a British society which, by 1968, really thought it had seen it all.

An unknown assailant making random fatal attacks on young children is a crime investigator’s worst nightmare, but when the killer is also a child, it becomes the stuff of nightmares.

Mary Bell, the daughter of a Newcastle prostitute, was only 10 in May 1968, when she lured a neighbouring boy who was only four years old, into a derelict house and strangled him. A short time later, she vandalised a local nursery and left sinister messages claiming responsibility for the murder (above left). The following July, this time with an accomplice, she attacked and strangled another neighbouring child, a little boy who was only three years old – in this latter case, Bell is believed to have returned to the scene of the crime afterwards, to inscribe a letter M on the victim’s body with a pair of scissors, and to mutilate his genitals.

Thanks to the unbridled horror of the case, even though she was only convicted on two counts of manslaughter (on the grounds that she was mentally ill), she was ordered to be detained indefinitely. However, she was released around 1980, and ever since then has lived anonymously under the protection of the courts.  


The Moors Murders

One of the most distressing cases of all time, the Moors Murders occurred between 1963 and 1965 on the outskirts of Manchester, and are often seen as a watershed in the history of UK crime.

Ian Brady, a Glaswegian-born ex-juvenile delinquent, and Myra Hindley, a clerk at the Gorton company where he found work, murdered five children, two girls and three boys, aged between 10 and 17. Four of the victims were sexually murdered, at least one of their torturous deaths photographed and tape-recorded, and the corpses buried on lonely Saddleworth Moor.

Brady and Hindley’s reign of horror ended when they committed their fifth murder in front of an unwilling accomplice, who the next day told all. The devilish twosome were convicted in 1966, missing the death penalty by months only, but receiving full life sentences. Even then, the victims’ families’ pain wasn’t over, the narcissistic Hindley fighting hard to acquit herself.

The fact that a woman had participated in these acts, using her femininity to lure the victims, horrified the world. Little wonder the phrase ‘wicked beyond belief’ was coined in reference to the duo. Few cared when Hindley died in prison in 2002; even fewer cared that Brady lingered on until 2017. 


Bible John

One of those true crime cases which ought to be the script for a horror movie.

A handsome man, clean-cut and well-groomed, introduces himself to young women at a famous old nightclub in the heart of town, using polite language and quoting the Bible to indicate that he is of God-fearing stock. And then, the next morning, those same young women are found in ruined buildings, raped, beaten and strangled with their own stockings.

To complete the terrifying picture, the culprit is never apprehended.

These ghastly events really took place in Glasgow in 1968 and 1969, centred around the Barrowland Ballroom. The murderer, who claimed three victims, was given the nickname ‘Bible John’, and quickly attained urban mythical status.

Despite the biggest police investigation in Scottish history, he was never captured. However, the story doesn’t end there. Speculation has now linked serial killer, Peter Tobin, with the case. Tobin, who was convicted of three murders in the 2000s, is known to have moved from Glasgow to England in 1969, when the Bible John murders stopped. Nothing has been proved, but the similarities between photos of him then, at age 23, and identikits of Bible John, are positively eerie.   


Patrick Mackay

Dartford-based Patrick Mackay learned nothing from his drunken, violent father except how to bully the weak.

When his father died in 1962, 10-year-old Patrick duly took on the role of chief-abuser of his mother and sisters. As he progressed into his teens, he threw his net wider, beating other children, stealing, torturing animals and serving time in juvenile detention. When he entered adulthood in the early 1970s, he moved to London, where he developed such a fascination with Nazism that he nicknamed himself Franklin Bolvolt 1st and started collecting SS memorabilia. It was also around this time when the hulking Mackay is believed to have commenced a series of brutal home-invasion murders, primarily targeting senior citizens.

Mackay was finally captured in 1975, when one of the victims, an elderly Roman Catholic priest, who he hacked to death with an axe, was remembered as being someone he’d had altercations with previously. Mackay bragged that he’d murdered 11 OAPs (including a tramp, who he claimed to have thrown from a railway bridge), was actually suspected of at least 12 such murders, but was only convicted of manslaughter through diminished responsibility. Nevertheless, he received a full-life sentence, which he is still serving.


The Yorkshire Ripper

Bingley-born lorry driver, Peter Sutcliffe, aka the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, started his reign of terror in 1969, when he assaulted a Bradford prostitute with a stone loaded in a sock. Other attacks followed in 1975, Sutcliffe approaching lone women at night, striking them with blunt instruments and stabbing them, though in the first four cases his victims survived, albeit severely injured.

The deaths began that October, when, armed with a hammer and sharpened screwdriver, and having refined his modus operandi – he now struck from behind, fracturing the skull first and then repeatedly puncturing the dazed victim’s body! – he struck down Leeds woman, Wilma McCann. From here, the brutality escalated, at least 12 more women dying in cities across Yorkshire, and even over the Pennines in Manchester.

He was arrested in 1981, when two uniformed officers became suspicious about the false plates on his car. After a case that had panicked the public, which was misdirected by a chilling but hoax taped confession, and which saw the West Yorkshire police severely criticised, the trial was understandably a sensation, Sutcliffe claiming that God had charged him to kill prostitutes, but ultimately failing to avoid a full-life prison sentence.


The Beast of Jersey

In 1960, the holiday idyll of Jersey, in the Channel Islands, was plunged into a living nightmare, when a nocturnal assailant clad in spiked wristlets and wearing a rubber horror mask, began breaking into lone houses, and raping and sodomising the women and children he found there.

In the ensuing terror, false accusations flew thick and fast, and in one instance an innocent French fisherman was hounded off the island, even though police suspicion of him proved to be unfounded.

The Beast’s ferocious rampage continued until 1971, when uniformed officers pursued a car running a red light, and collared Edward Paisnel, a formerly respected islander who’d previously been seen as a pillar of the community. Despite Paisnel’s denials, the evidence was strong: part of the horror costume was found in his car, and later examination of his cottage uncovered a black magic altar in an outbuilding, where rumour held that he’d been sacrificing animals to Satan.

Sentenced to 30 years in prison, he attempted to return to Jersey on his release, but such was the hostility of locals, that he left again, dying on the Isle of Wight in 1994. Stories connecting him with historic child abuse at the Haut de la Garenne children’s home are thought to be wide of the mark.  


The Cambridge Rapist

Peter Samuel Cook was a prolific burglar, an expert house-breaker, who in October 1974 switched to rape when he encountered a young woman in a student’s hostel in Cambridge, and violently overpowered her.

Between then and the following spring, he repeatedly broke into student accommodation in the city which he’d identified as housing single female occupants.

His attacks were appallingly brutal, but were made more terrifying by his method: he used weapons and wore a chilling costume which included a slit-eyed, zipper-mouthed leather mask with the word ‘Rapist’ inscribed across the forehead.

In fact, so much did Cook come to enjoy the monstrous persona he’d created for himself that he began to take risks. For instance, if a proposed break-in failed, he would write messages on the windows of his intended victims’ bedrooms, such as: ‘Sleep tight – the Rapist’. This caused even greater fear in the city, but left the police with evidence of his handwriting.

He made some efforts to protect himself, such as attaching false hair and a beard inside his mask, but ultimately Cook was captured fleeing the scene of his last crime on a bicycle. His life term was fulfilled when he died in prison in 2004.   


Trevor Hardy

One of Britain’s lesser-known serial killers, Trevor Hardy, aka ‘the Beast of Manchester,’ had the potential to rock the country in the same way the Yorkshire Ripper would a couple of years later, but the police were onto him quickly and, though the enquiry was widespread in the city, it was kept relatively low-key.

That said, Hardy, a Manchester native well known for his violent temper (and for his ability to brutalise men, let alone women), still claimed three lives – and in horrible fashion. Between 1974 and 1976, he murdered three teenage girls whom he stalked late at night, battering, strangling and sexually assaulting them, and on two occasions, stripping and mutilating the corpses afterwards.

Though he took pains to preserve his liberty – arranging fake alibis with acquaintances and even filing his teeth down so that bite marks on the bodies could not be connected to him – Hardy displayed many of the signatures of traditional predatory sex killers, which ultimately would provide damning evidence in court: he collected gruesome trophies from the victims, and even gave one to a girlfriend as a love token. Imprisoned under a full-life tariff, he died in jail in 2012.

Suspicion that he may have committed other murders has never been successfully pursued.


The Black Panther

Donald Neilson was a small businessman from Bradford who most people in the mid-70s wouldn’t have looked at twice, let alone imagined was capable of instigating one of the most terrifying crime-waves in British history.

Because Neilson was also the ‘Black Panther’, a polific burglar and armed robber, who always came masked and wielding a loaded shotgun, and who showed no compunction about murder.

He allegedly turned to crime when his business failed, but if so, he seemed to have no qualms about it. In 1974 alone, he shot and killed four men during burglaries or post office robberies. The crimes occurred as far apart as the West Midlands and Lancashire, the whole country soon living in fear of a merciless offender who attacked with commando precision (Neilson was an ex-soldier).

However, his worst atrocity came in 1975, when he kidnapped 17-year-old heiress, Lesley Whittle, and imprisoned her on a platform deep in a drainage shaft with a wire noose around her neck. Whether she was pushed or fell from the platform through exhaustion, Whittle didn’t survive the ordeal.

Captured later that year by two bobbies, who recognised him from a photo-fit, Neilson went to jail as one of the UK’s most hated criminals, dying there in 2011.  


John Childs

It’s tempting to assume that of all the mass murderer ‘types’ currently hiding in the world’s shadows, the contract killers, while undoubtedly among the most dangerous because of their proficiency, are probably the easiest to understand, as their motive – getting rich – is a common one.

While they might be totally ruthless, the general assumption is that they don’t do what they do simply because they enjoy it. But try telling that to the victims of John Childs, a professional bank robber and London-based hitman who between 1974 and 1978, murdered six people in various ghastly ways, shooting one of them three times, transfixing another with a sword and after hacking a third with an axe and bludgeoning him with a pipe, finishing him off with a garrote.

To make matters worse, not all the victims were gangland figures, indeed one of them was a 10-year-old child who just happened to be in company with his father when the killer struck.

The final horror in the John Childs story is the manner of his disposal of the corpses, all of which, incredibly, were dismembered and then cremated in the fireplace of his sordid East End flat (imagine the foulness of that). Childs is still alive, but serving a full-life jail term.  


Bruce Lee

Originally named Peter Dinsdale – he chose his new name, himself, in homage to his kung-fu fighting hero – Lee had a hellish upbringing. Born in a tough part of Manchester, the epileptic, partially paralysed son of a prostitute, he was mocked, bullied and achieved nothing at school.

He was also a pyromanic, who knew when it was time to light a fire because his ‘fingers tingled’.

Naturally, his favourite targets were occupied premises, like houses and rest homes for the elderly, though the fatal conflagrations only began in 1973, when he was 13 and living in Hull. In total, he lit nine fatal house-fires between then and 1980, burning to death 11 elderly men in one attack, and a young mother and her three sons in another. In total, 26 people died at the arsonist’s hands.

His method wasn’t especially clever, the flames often struck after he poured paraffin through letterboxes and the like (on one occasion he poured it over a victim who was sleeping in an armchair!), which means he was lucky that no criminal action was initially suspected.

Even after he was arrested and confessed, the charge of mass-manslaughter seems generous given that some of his victims were people he had grudges against. In the end, Lee was confined to a mental hospital, with the chilling statement: ‘Fire is my master’.    


The Cannock Chase Murders

In the late 60s, with the shock of the Moors Murders reverberating around the UK, a new child-murderer was already on the prowl.

To all intents and purposes, Raymond Leslie Morris was not your typical sex-offender (if such a thing exists).

A handsome, brighter-than-average family man, he had a good job and lived in a suburban corner of Walsall. But he had a secret dark side; he habitually made unacceptable sexual demands of the women in his life, and had an alarming predilection for very young girls.

Between 1965 and 1967, he coaxed three of them – nine, six and five – into his car while they were en route to school, and then assaulted and suffocated them. Their bodies were afterwards abandoned on open land at Cannock Chase, kick-starting a massive police investigation, which saw a facial composite used for the first time ever in a British police enquiry (apparently closely matching the killer’s actual looks).

Traced in 1968 after an unsuccessful fourth abduction, Morris was finally convicted of one murder (but still believed responsible for the other two), and sentenced to life without parole. A fourth child-murder has often been attributed to him, but was never proved. Morris died in prison in 2014.  


Mark Rowntree

As if the West Yorkshire police weren’t having enough trouble in the mid/late 1970s coping with the crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper, a second serial killer was also trawling the same patch at the same time.

In fact, some of the murders committed by paranoid schizophrenic Mark Rowntree were, for a brief period at least, considered to have been committed by the Ripper himself, and at the very least were a distraction to the enquiry.

Rowntree’s specific hunting ground was Bingley, and between 1975 and 1976 he committed four savage but random murders. In two of them, he forced entry to private premises, stabbing to death the occupants, a woman alone and a woman and her three-year-old son, and in another fatally attacking a teenage boy waiting at a bus stop.

When finally apprehended, after people who knew him recognised a description that had been circulated by the police, Rowntree appeared to be resigned to his fate, but expressed regret that he'd only claimed four lives – he had hoped to emulate his idol, the Black Panther, whose total was five.

On conviction, he was confined in Rampton Hospital, and is now one of the longest-serving psychiatric patients in any of Britain’s high-security asylums.  


Graham Young

Ever since his childhood, North Londoner Graham Young had been fascinated by dangerous chemicals, and as part of this obsession, spent many of those years testing poisons on his family.

At first no-one suspected anything, assuming that the Youngs were simply unlucky with stomach viruses. However, when Graham’s stepmother died in 1962, an investigation uncovered belladonna, and the culprit was sent to Broadmoor Secure Hospital. Nine years later, he was pronounced cured and released, even though he had spent his time inside refining his skill to the point where he could extract cyanide from laurel leaves, and even used this method to kill fellow inmate, John Berridge.

It was now 1971, and Graham found work at the John Hadland Laboratories in Hertfordshire, where he promptly began administering thallium via the canteen tea-urn. At least 70 of his fellow-workers became seriously ill, two of them dying. When his home was searched, the police found various toxic substances and a detailed log in which Young kept records of the doses he’d dealt and his feelings about whether those stricken deserved to live or die.

In 1972, ‘the Teacup Poisoner’, as the press dubbed him, went to prison for life, dying in his cell in 1990.


The Monster Butler

In the case of Archibald Hall, the butler really did do it, and more than once.

In a story that sounds as if it comes from a ‘village green’ murder mystery, Glasgow-born Archie Hall, a career criminal, who during his early years in the 1960s specialised in petty theft, had always fancied himself the debonair type, and so in the 1970s found richer pickings by hiring himself to the landed gentry as a butler.

His first murder occurred in 1977, when he shot and killed a rival villain who was endangering his position on the Highland estate where he was working. He moved south, attempting to escape his past, but violence seemed to follow him. Later that year, with the assistance of his on/off lover, Mary Coggle, he beat and suffocated his elderly employers, the Scott-Elliotts, in order to rob them. Later that day, in a row over the loot, he murdered Coggle the same way.

He killed again the following Christmas, this time his own brother, Donald, who was becoming suspicious of his new-found wealth. However, Hall attracted attention while trying to dispose of Donald’s body and was arrested in early 1978.

He died in 2002 at age 78, the oldest prisoner in the UK to still be serving a full-life sentence. 


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

BLOOD AXE
by Leigh Russell (2015)

It all starts very unthreateningly, when a replica Viking battle-axe is stolen during a semi-comic re-enactment of a Dark Ages battle in the grounds of Clifford’s Tower in the grand old city of York. It’s not the kind of thing that would normally require the deductive skills of an experienced copper like DI Ian Peterson, and in truth, he treats the whole thing light-heartedly.

Peterson is a relatively recent arrival in York, having relocated from Kent to obtain his much sought-for promotion, but while he himself is intrigued by the ancient city, and determined to try and enjoy its many olde worlde treasures, his wife Beverly isn’t quite as sold. She feels a long way from home, she misses her family and friends, and although she and Peterson have been together for quite a while now, she is increasingly uninterested in his job and shows progressively less concern for the responsibilities it demands of him. At present, the duo are living an uneasy kind of truce, though to be fair, this isn’t helped by Peterson’s workaholic nature. Even when there is relatively little for him to investigate, he manages to spend many, many hours at the office, dotting every i and crossing every t.

So, imagine the domestic strife that will ensue when a series of horrific murders suddenly commences. And by horrific, I mean horrific.

Yes, York, that handsome, atmospheric town in the scenic Yorkshire wolds, famous for its history, its archaeology, its excellent shopping, and its fine, old-fashioned English cuisine, is suddenly the hub of a bloody murder spree, wherein the victims – who’ve apparently been chosen indiscriminately – are literally axed to death.

Peterson, acting under the orders of the fearsome DCI Eileen Bullock, is immediately assigned to the case, and tackles it in his usual workmanlike way, aided and abetted by his trusty sidekick, Ted Birling, but impeded a little bit by the impulsive and somewhat overconfident Naomi. The problem though, is not Peterson’s hit-and-miss colleagues, but the killer, who despite his ferocity, comes and goes like a ghost, leaving scarcely a clue and not pursuing any pattern that even hints at his motivation.

In this regard, we readers are one or two steps ahead of Peterson, because we at least have the ‘pleasure’ of witnessing these graphic crimes, on each occasion slipping into the mind of a complete lunatic, who prowls the city’s byways after dark acting out an insane Viking fantasy in which murder and pillage are the only items of interest and where every stranger on the street is fair game. And no, just in case you’ve got a weak stomach, we are not spared the actual destruction that inevitably follows: the swinging of the mighty axe, the sundering of skulls, the lopping of limbs.

This is grim and grisly stuff, which unsurprisingly leads to a frenzy in the once-happy city, increasing Peterson’s workload to the point where it almost breaks him. Even though he makes the connection to the stolen axe at the beginning, and works with helpful staff at the Jorvik Centre, like Ralph Grey and Sophie James, to establish that he’s following a latter-day Norseman, there are so few real leads that – if for no other reason than to keep his spirits up – he consults with former boss and ace detective in her own right, DI Geraldine Steel.

Many crime fans will recognise this name, Steel having been Peterson’s mentor during a former series of books, in which she was the star of the show and he her humble sergeant. However, this is only really a guest-appearance. Blood Axe is very firmly a DI Peterson investigation, and one he’s soon under intolerable pressure to wrap up, not just to save further innocent bodies from the Viking axe – the severed corpses don’t half stack up in this one! – but also to save his own job, and maybe even his marriage, because it’s anyone’s guess how long the self-centred Beverly is going to tolerate the continued absence of her husband in what, at times, seems like a completely futile quest …

One of the most refreshing aspects of the DI Ian Peterson novels is the nature of the hero. Yes, these are solid police procedurals, but Peterson is quite different from the norm. He’s not moody, he’s not a drinker, he’s not damaged in some mysterious, indefinable way which no doubt will all come out eventually. In truth, he’s an everyman, a copper’s copper, one of those methodical, hardworking detectives who most likely account for the majority of real-life CID officers in the UK, and are almost routinely classified as ‘married to the job’.

In Peterson’s case, this hasn’t entirely been to his advantage. For example, he doesn’t have much time for romance or even a social life. So, while he’s sharp-eyed and deeply analytical, his people skills are not the best; he’s awkward in his dealings with the public, he handles suspects and witnesses brusquely, he’s not much fun at parties, and most discomfortingly of all for the reader, he has no clue that his marriage is going downhill fast, even though it’s happening right under his nose.

His wife, Bev, is being neglected on an epic scale. That said, she’s a none-too-sympathetic character in my eyes; she surely knew what she was getting into when she married a copper, and it can hardly have escaped her notice that an axe-murderer is prowling York, and that her husband is charged with capturing him – though this unreasonableness on Bev’s part does serve the useful purpose of making our harassed hero even more vulnerable and appealing.

The story itself runs convincingly and at pace, Peterson and his team working their way with much frustration through a complex web of misleading information, making repeated false starts, heading down blind alleys and the like, while confronted by a range of ‘persons of interest’ and falling out among themselves as to which of these is the most viable – and all of this amid the chaos of bereaved and very credibly distraught relatives, and of course a growing media panic.

It’s all quite effective and believable, the lovely city of York in virtual lockdown by the end of the book, its tourism-based economy seriously imperilled.

And it’s easy to see how that could happen. Any kind of serial killer is a genuine nightmare, not just for the police but for the general population of whichever area is being terrorised, but an axe-murderer who seemingly picks his targets at random has got to be the most awful creature of all. With real-life cases of this sort – the Mad Axeman of New Orleans and the Cleveland Torso Murderer – you only need to look at the newspaper reports of the time to see what a devastating effect they had on local communities, and how people literally would not leave their homes day or night, keeping doors and windows closed and locked despite stifling summer heat.

In the case of York, a great setting for all kinds of reasons, not least its quaintness, and which is rarely the stamping ground of maniacs even in crime fiction, it is all the more portentous – because this scenic old city wasn’t always quaint. In the Dark Ages, when York was called Jorvik, it was the Viking capital of Northumbria, and the city is alive even today with memories of that wild, barbarous breed, who saw war, conquest and the ruthless killing of their foes as the surest way to reach Valhalla. In fact, the 10th century Viking warlord, Eric Bloodaxe – and he wasn’t given that name because of his meek and retiring nature – ruled twice from York as King of Northumbria.

Leigh Russell plays this card very nicely indeed, not delving too deeply into Viking culture or mythology – after all, this is the Viking world as perceived by someone who’s mentally ill – though during those brief interludes when we’re on the road with the killer, we wield our axe with pride, view the local population as sheep waiting to be sheared, and enjoy the violence of our attacks as much, if not more so, than we do the acquisition of our victims’ wealth.

The book first caught my eye because of this unusual premise. In truth, I wasn’t initially sure that it would work – bringing Northman-style violence to a modern UK city – but the moment I got into it, I lost all qualms. This is heady stuff, very scary in parts and also pretty gory. But it makes for a damn good, and I have to say, quite easy and straightforward read. It also ends on a big, unexpected twist, so it comes highly recommended for all fans of murder mysteries and police procedurals.

I’ve heard some gossip that the investigations of Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson have been optioned for TV development, which, if it comes to fruition, will be good news indeed. However, as always, I’m going to try and get there first by nominating my own cast should Blood Axe make it to the screen. Here we go: 

DI Ian Peterson – Andrew Lincoln
DI Geraldine Steel – Kate Beckinsdale
Beverley Peterson – Kelly Macdonald
Ralph Grey – Brian F O’Byrne
Sophie James – Jennie Jacques


Imagery: The Moors Murders search pic comes from the Evening Standard; the Bible John pic comes from Media Scotland; the Patrick Mackay screen-grab comes from the Twofour Productions documentary series, Born to Kill; the Ripper crowd image comes from the Huddersfield Daily Examiner; the Black Panther pic comes from the Birmingham Mail. 

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