Crime Novel Review: Holy Island by LJ Ross

After a long absence enforced by having to read a lot of non-fiction, EJ Knight returns with a review of the bestselling Holy Island by LJ Ross, whose author has been described by one reviewer as ‘the queen of Kindle’.

I’m always interested in other writers who have mastered the direct or independent publishing route, not least to see whether they have used the route to circumvent agency/publisher processes with strong genre material, or used the independence to try something startlingly innovative that a commercially-minded publisher would not have the guts to take a risk with. LJ Ross falls into the former category, embracing the geography well known to readers of Ann Cleeves’ Vera series, with a series starring Detective Chief Inspector Ryan.

The first in the series, Holy Island, is set around the winter solstice on the mystical and historic Holy Island of Lindisfarne, its intense community cut off twice daily by the sea that swells over the causeway. DCI Ryan, sequestered there with demons of loss from a recent case, finds his unsettled isolation brutally disrupted by the murder of a local teenager, whose body is arranged in a clinically ritualistic manner. Ryan gets himself reinstated on the grounds of geographical convenience, but must negotiate with the input of a former island resident and expert on paganism to whom he becomes reluctantly attracted. As another murder is committed and the ritualistic elements become more complicated, Ryan encounters the complexities of a community that has one face for the outside world and another that looks inwards.

As other KDP success stories Rachel Abbott and Mel Sherratt have shown, the direct publishing market is a really effective one for genre crime, whatever that expression really means now with so many sub-strands, and LJ Ross has certainly taken her place in that roll call. Is this novel fluent and readable? Yes. Is it a pageturner? Mostly yes. Does it break new ground? Not really. The attraction between Ryan and the pagan expert Anna Taylor feels inevitable and its final consequences are predictable. The layers of interpersonal complexity and the impact of a tight-knit community on social identities and people’s choices are also not particularly surprising, and the small tragedies of village life are not unexpected. As the novel unwinds in the last third and the emotional relationships tighten up, I felt the plot became increasingly diffuse and with it the resolution of the murders.

There are some clever twists, but oddly the one thing that kept bothering me throughout was that this novel would somehow damage the reputation of Holy Island as a beautiful and restorative place. I can see Ross’s motivation for undoing the mysticism with reality and deconstructing the myth of spirituality with the liberal brutality of human motive (I’m sure my fellow allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore would also have something to say on that). But the pagan ‘expert’ doesn’t actually offer that much to Ryan’s understanding of what’s happening on the island, nor does Ross use Anna’s specialist knowledge to exploit the slippery interface between the predictable and the unpredictable. Furthermore, Ryan keeps control throughout the case because Ross remains in police procedural territory; Ryan surely should be much nearer the edge of his comfort zone but instead Anna is essentially his safety net which, given her personal situation in the novel, felt unlikely to me.

 

I can absolutely see why this has been successful, and with regard to a very early post that Evie made about pricing, I don’t think that does any harm either. Will I buy another? Probably not. But many people have enjoyed this book, because it is what it says it is. Solid crime fiction.

***

EJ Knight is the author of Broadway Murder of 1928.

EJ Knight’s Monthly Crime Reviews: October 2015

This month, EJ Knight kicks off a series of crime novel reviews with a diverse selection of serial characters.

When do you finish writing a popular series? Sue Grafton appears to have made her decision from the first novel as she gently winds our way with Kinsey Millhone and the alphabet series to ‘Z’; Janet Evanovich seems destined to go on forever and may be, even now, pondering what adjective or adverb to go with infinity; while Lindsey Davies took the clever step of a spin-off from the Falco novels. I found myself pondering ‘the end’ while I was reading The Survivor by Kyle Mills. Mills has been brought in to continue the Mitch Rapp series after Vince Flynn’s death. And, he almost pulls it off. The Survivor picks up immediately from where The Last Man finished and the race to find top secret material before it is posted on the internet. The action, as one would expect from the series, is unrelenting and the story, although predictable, is exactly what one reads this type of book for. But, for me, the characters were just not quite right – too introspective whilst, at the same time, being too flat. I’d completed the book before realising that Flynn had died and Mills was taking on the series and, as I read the last page, I wondered if it had been a book too far in the series. There is only one Mitch Rapp; and there was only one Vince Flynn to give him the right voice.

So as one series hits the ‘do not buy again’ list, I’ve discovered two new series this month which I would definitely read again, one which I’ll consider, and one which I may have caught as it finishes. Cover Shot by LynDee Walker is the fifth in the series featuring Nichelle Clarke, a journalist in a local newspaper who, in the pursuit of the full story, finds herself investigating murder, hostage-taking, and fighting for her own life. It’s the usual plot of an amateur detective but that would be to undersell what is a really well-written, well-paced and compelling story. I liked Nichelle and I wanted her to find out who had killed the doctor and why. I really did. And so what if I thought it was a little derivative of Evanovich? It was still a great read and I’ll read the earlier ones in the series now. The same is true for Rose Strickland in Diner Knock Out by Terri L. Austin. This time the main character is learning how to be a private investigator and, out of pique with her employer, takes on a case without telling him. Surprise, surprise – it turns out to be more complicated than she realised and she needs his help to solve the murder(s). As in Cover Shot, there is a criminal boyfriend whose heart is in the right place and there are side-kicks who are also colourful friends. But, again, it really works and I found myself rooting for Rose, wanting her to sort out her love life and solve the murder. And survive the threats to her life so that there would be more books in the series.

By coincidence, the fourth book in this review is also set in the US. Brother can you spare a dime by Jack Martin is set in the Depression. The main character, Henry Bierce, is an enigmatic member of the FBI, with a twist which is strongly alluded to but never quite stated clearly. I’m not going to say more because Martin introduces the hints with great subtlety and a very deliberate pace and, it would give away much of the suspense to know the twist before reading the book. In trying to identify the conspirators behind an attempt on FDR’s life, Bierce has run-ins with Bonnie and Clyde and other gangsters of the period – all of which give an interesting twist to the known stories of the time. This is the first in the series and it doesn’t quite work in places – I found some of the pacing uneven and there was sometimes too much setting up of series story-lines at the expense of successful novel resolution – but I am certainly looking forward to the next in the series and getting to know more about Henry.

And will I ever get the chance to know more about Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May without going back to the previous 11 in the series? The Burning Man is number 12 and, given the way it ends, it has a sense of finality to suggest that Fowler has decided to call it quits. Or has he? Because the Kindle edition suggested that there may be more to come. If there are, I shall be reading them. Bryant and May may not need much introduction since they were introduced in 2003 in Full Dark House. The two members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit live and work in London and, in this novel, rush to find an arsonist and murderer before anarchy spills over from the City to the rest of London. I read this with that feeling of being the newbie to the meeting – the person who has to learn who is who and ‘why things are done this way’ but it didn’t detract too much from the clever and contemporary plot.

*****

All the books reviewed here were free from NetGalley in exchange for impartial reviews.

EJ Knight will be publishing a monthly review of crime fiction. If you would like your book to be considered, please email at allonymbooks@gmail.com. EJ Knight’s novel Broadway Murder of 1928 is available from all Amazon websites.

Crime Novel Review: A Man of Some Repute by Elizabeth Edmondson

This week, allonymbooks author EJ Knight reviews Elizabeth Edmondson’s period crime novel, A Man of Some Repute.

Period tone is always a controversial area for writers, actors, directors, filmmakers and musicians. We pursue authenticity relentlessly, and yet sometimes only hindsight makes it possible for certain stories to be written. An opera buddy of mine refuses to see any productions of operas which are set in ‘modern’ productions, hating the reinterpretations of what he sees as classic stories and music against the framework of anachronistic contemporary values. In a similar vein, a piece about British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in The Guardian quoted director Marilyn Imrie on Cumberbatch’s uncannily accurate and rare grasp of the post-war vernacular in both movement and dialogue style: “he has that rare thing in a younger actor – he can summon up that quality of post-war Englishness that a lot of actors under 40 really can’t capture.”

One considers many of the same issues when reading Elizabeth Edmondson’s crime novel set in  1953. Hugo Hawksworth relocates to deeply rural Selchester Castle, still adjusting to an injury he received when undercover during the war. With his 13 year old sister, Georgia, he is seeking stability of a sort, and yet he is not a man to settle easily. Nor, it seems, are the bones of Lord Selchester which are found shortly after his arrival in the Castle, giving prospect to the solving of his disappearance – and, it seems, murder – six years ago. In the company of the last remaining resident of the Castle, Selchester’s niece Freya, Hugo explores the background to Selchester’s death, driven partly by Freya’s insistence that she is innocent, and partly by some murky business that he must undertake on behalf of Sir Bernard at The Hall, a local outpost of the intelligence community. Hugo, keen to prove his worth despite his injury, uses his natural investigative instinct, aided for the most part by the zealous and enthusiastic Georgia, and eventually by Freya who must face the fact that the Selchester she thought she knew had clearly made an enemy.

Making a story period is, however, about much more than just inserting period details. Edmondson is thorough with reference to the stringencies of post-war life, from ration books to clothes, rural poverty, switchboard telephony and modes of transport. There is also detailed historical framing, particularly with reference to social themes regarding sex, adultery, homosexuality, secrecy, and the financial independence of women, as well as the political landscape of post-war Britain, America and the Soviet Union. And it is here that the challenge for the historical novelist starts and ends. To what extent can motives, motivations and morals of a period be authentically employed by a contemporary writer?

It is easy enough for us to research and review what we know about lives lived before, and create plots from what we understand to be the complexities of life, but the truth is often that the sorts of themes we write about now would not have been written about then. The paradox of Edmondson’s novel is, to me, that she has written in a very authentic period voice, but that the plot itself is redolent of a more contemporary interpretation of social motivations and thus motives for murder. Indeed, the main opening of the novel is so period that I had to check that it wasn’t actually written in the 1950s, for it has the flavour of the style, a sort of Tommy and Tuppence scent to it. (I would note that Edmondson’s editor has let one or two verbal oddities escape: there is reference to ‘ultra casual’ which is surely a 21st century modifier, and a ‘soft drink’ which, if it is not an alcohol-awareness label, surely sounds anachronistic enough to stick out.) But if I have a criticism of this novel which otherwise flies along in dialogue terms, albeit with periodic down time for extensive description which does slow the pace, it is that it feels slightly forced from the plot point of view. And there is a faint hint of stereotype about the characters with motive for murder, all of whom stack up very plausibly in terms of motive, but whose secrets are so because they belong to the period. 

*****

EJ Knight’s historical crime novel Broadway Murder of 1928 is available from all Amazon sites for Kindle. Broadway Murder is the first in the Lucille Landau series.

In Admiration of…. Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels

In a timely addition to the series of occasional blogs about other crime writers, allonymbooks author EJ Knight ponders the crime novels by Lawrence Block from which the imminently released  film A Walk Among The Tombstones is drawn.

I’ve visited New York many, many times over the years and, much as my allonymbooks stablemate Evie Woolmore found Warsaw an inspiration for her novel Rising Up, so my slow wanderings around one of the world’s great cities inspired me in my writing. But unlike Evie, the majority of my visits to New York have not been by plane, car or train. They have been in the pedestrianised byways of my imagination, walking slowly, patiently, doggedly in the long shadow cast by Matt Scudder. For while the upcoming adaptation of Lawrence Block’s tenth Scudder novel is being widely praised already for Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Block’s complex ex-cop, for me the Scudder books feature another powerful and dominating character: New York City.

AWATTLNCities are notoriously as fickle as unfaithful lovers, as sparklingly delightful in summer sun as they can be menacing and unpredictable as the winter twilight encroaches. Yet New York is a faithful mistress to Scudder, much like Elaine, his ex-prostitute girlfriend. She knows him well, her constant presence a reassurance, even if he must share her from time to time with strangers. If man’s inhumanity to man continues to etch deeper marks in Scudder, if – despite all that he has seen and learned of the victims he helps – he still strives to take everything in his stride, it is not the city that will let him down, desert him, shock or betray him. Indeed, while Scudder rarely comments objectively on New York, Block’s characterisations of its inhabitants – racially and culturally diverse, corrupt and noble, timeless and rudely modern, drunk and sober – are New York as much as the basements of churches, the diners and bars, the streets of the Village and the hotel room on the 50s Scudder inhabits. Likewise, Scudder lives around the clock of the twenty-four hour city, as able to assume the respectable routines of the worker bees as he is to sit out the small, dark hours in bars where the truth glistens deep in a glass of honey-coloured bourbon. He is both constantly Scudder and compellingly desperate not to be him any more. And if New York is a city where one can be anyone one wishes to be, then Scudder’s strength is his silent empathy with the victims who surely wish this had not happened to them.

For Scudder is, it seems to me, in pursuit of the restoration of equilibrium. Nothing can alter the path taken by the wayward bullet that killed Estrellita Rivera. And if in solving the crimes he is not in pursuit of justice as such, then he is certainly watching both sides of the scales, minutely and patiently adjusting and arranging the weight of consequence that will restore some sense of balance to those destabilised by the crimes that happen to them. Over the course of the series of books, Scudder’s own scales are eventually quietly and minutely adjusted by those close to him: Elaine, TJ, Jim Faber. And if the ground beneath him creaks and stirs much as it does when the A Train rattles through columns of steel, then it soon settles again.

*****

EJ Knight is the author of Broadway Murder of 1928, available for Kindle from all Amazon sites.

A review of AWATT will appear shortly on this blog. In the meantime, check out Cadell Blackstock’s consideration of the pluses and pitfalls of adapting Scudder to the screen.

In admiration of….Ruth Dudley Edwards

In the latest in a series of blogs, new allonymbooks crime author EJ Knight discusses some favourite crime writers. This week, Ruth Dudley Edwards.

My next choice is a quirky one in that Ruth Dudley Edwards is more famous as a historian and journalist, including for The Economist and Financial Times. Since 1993, Dudley Edwards has also written a crime series based around the shenanigans of Robert Amiss and the memorable Ida Troutbeck.

In many ways, the series is less about ‘who-dunnit’, although each book has at its central story-line Amiss’ attempts to solve, or help the police solve, a vicious murder or murders, and more a vehicle for a funny, sharp and accurate satire on various pillars of the British establishment – from the civil service, to the Church of England, and to the British education system. In each book, Amiss is ‘persuaded’ to become involved by Troutbeck’s manoeuvrings and his own admiration for police detectives Milton and Pooley.

I read seven of the first eight in the series in the 1990s and remember vividly how upset I was that my copy of the second – The Saint Valentine’s Day Murders – had been printed so that I had the first hundred pages twice and no-more. My frustration was compounded by the fact that the bookstore had no more copies and all attempts to find another copy were fruitless. So, it was with great joy that I recently discovered that not only were all Dudley Edwards’ books now available on Kindle but also that, while I thought she had stopped writing fiction, Dudley Edwards had written another three in the series, with another on the way. Hooray!

Why do I keep coming back to these novels and why is Dudley Edwards my first choice for this blog? Because the books make me smile and keep reading. There are many great writers who have written elegant detective stories that could be considered great literary novels. But I didn’t enjoy reading them because they were so serious. Dudley Edwards is a wonderful writer – the plot moves with speed, the characterisation is sharp, and the dialogue is as real as it can be in written form – but what always stands out for me is that I feel happier once I’ve read her books. And it is for that reason that I will always keep them to read on a wet British afternoon (of which Dudley Edwards’ characters will know all too well).

*****

EJ Knight is the author of the Lucille Landaus series of historical crime novels, the first of which –  Broadway Murder of 1928 – is excerpted here.

In admiration of…. Rex Stout

In the latest in a series of blogs, new allonymbooks crime author EJ Knight discusses some favourite crime writers. This week, American writer Rex Stout.

Rex Stout is a name which many readers may be unfamiliar with, indeed amid the wash of gritty Nordic and British crime, there might seem to be little to recommend a writer whose novels are at first glance so mild-mannered and dated to the time of their writing. Indeed, much of the action takes place in the brownstone home of a man who weighs “one sixth of a ton”, rather than on the mean streets of pre- and post-WWII New York. Yet the thirty or so novels Stout wrote featuring the intellectual giant Nero Wolfe, and his legman – the witty ladies’ man Archie Goodwin – are not only clever puzzles but also a fine portrait of a city and a country going through periods of enormous social change. The plots range widely from corporate and industrial intrigue, families in crisis, diplomacy, politics and the criminal underworld, to the recurrent impact of the war both collectively and individually. Wealth is perhaps more prominent than poverty, as both Wolfe and his clients live comfortably and Archie Goodwin’s taste in ladies generally runs to the more refined, such as socialite heiress Lily Rowan. But the darker, dirtier face of the city is glimpsed often enough in the diners and dark alleys observed by Wolfe’s secondary team of private detectives such as Saul Panzer.

Wolfe and Goodwin are in a marriage of unequals yet they complement each other most brilliantly. Wolfe is huge, temperamental, obsessive about his food, devoted to his orchids, a man of such utter ritual that he will not be disturbed for any crisis, even by his closest associates – Archie Goodwin and Fritz (the chef and majordomo). He refuses to leave the brownstone for anyone – client or cop – and could be seen as the extreme of the eccentric, individualistic private detective. Crimes are puzzles, criminals are like museum exhibits, to be studied and observed from many angles while Wolfe barely moves from his office chair. By contrast, Goodwin is the everyman: a connoisseur of women and violence, he is Wolfe’s eyes and ears out in the world, gliding easily between the criminal classes and the monied aristocracy, driving all over the city and the state, and it is he who tells the stories of the cases that Wolfe is asked to solve, and who paints the portraits of those entangled in the crimes.

The dialogue and first person narration in these books is what drives them both in story and quality. This quote from The Silent Speaker (1946) is typical of the way Stout captures the relationship between Wolfe and Goodwin:

“Nonsense.” Wolfe was peevish. “With an ordinary person that might be necessary, but Mr. Goodwin is trained, competent, reliable, and moderately intelligent.”

We aren’t told what Archie thinks of being described by his employer as “moderately intelligent” and it doesn’t matter, for Archie reports things exactly as they are, which is part of what makes him such a good detective. Hence his use of the word “peevish” – perhaps a less fashionable descriptor now yet for Goodwin it pins his employer’s mood precisely to the map, and for Stout it avoids slowing the rapid fire pacing of the dialogue with overly heavy description. But hence also the precision with which, in the same novel, Stout has Archie report the death of a beautiful woman outside the brownstone and chart the effect of her loss on him:

I do not ordinarily hunt for a cave in the middle of the biggest excitement and the most intense action but this seemed to hit me in a new spot or something, and anyhow there I was, trying to arrange my mind. Or maybe my feelings. All I knew was that something inside of me needed a little arranging.

And at the end of the same short chapter:

I had been sitting in my room twenty minutes when I noticed that I hadn’t drunk any milk, but I hadn’t spilled any from the glass.

There is little angst in these books, no great emotional swings and roundabouts as experienced by some of the other great detectives who get so personally involved. Nero Wolfe solves crimes for money, he is perhaps an intellectual mercenary for he forms no attachments to the victims. His endless battle with Inspector Cramer of the police is one for control of the facts and of his privacy – perhaps in equal measure – and the police are  as necessary an evil in tidying up and enacting the solutions Wolfe reaches, as the crimes are for Wolfe to fund his peculiar lifestyle.

So why would you read these books? They are historically dated, favour dialogue over action and the questing of motive over the complexity of plot. Stories are sometimes convoluted, there are often innumerable characters (all beautifully named) and Wolfe is at times so metronomically confined by his own routines as to be close to a parody of himself. But that is to oversimplify the charm of the books – any fan of Christie or Allingham or Sayers would find these just as compelling – and to belittle their lessons for us as writers. For they are a masterclass in how to use words very exactly, how to create a world without being too lavish in description, how to home in on what we really need to say about our characters. Not a word is wasted. The books rush past as easily as a fat airport paperback, but they do so without gloss or embellishment. Every sentence counts, every single observation Archie makes tells us what we need to know, and I for one could listen to him reading the telephone book.

*****

EJ Knight is the author of the Lucille Landaus series of historical crime novels, the first of which –  Broadway Murder of 1928 – is excerpted here.

Many of the Nero Wolfe books are still in print and several have now been issued for Kindle. If you haven’t encountered Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin before, A&E made a series of films for television based on a number of the stories. Starring Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin, they are good adaptations of the novels and also fun to watch.

Broadway Murder of 1928 by EJ Knight: Exclusive Extract

Read an exclusive extract from the beginning of the latest allonymbooks book: Broadway Murder of 1928 by EJ Knight. Historical crime fiction at its best.

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Mutti is standing at the end of the alley, ankle deep in blood. Old Mr Goldblum and his son Itai are standing either side of her, their hands resting on her shoulders, their beards glistenin’ in the yellowish light from the back door of the pub, their long black coats flutterin’ like crows’ wings. Someone’s playing ‘Potato Head Blues’ on the piano inside. It sounds like me playing, making the same mistake over’n’over before the stop-time section, before Louis Armstrong starts his solo, but when I look down I’m still standing out back and there’s a broken bottle in my blood-soaked hands.

‘Come now,’ they’re saying to her in Yiddish. ‘Come back to the factory.’

‘But who will mend my Lucille’s dress?’ Mutti’s saying in German, pointing at me.

‘It’s her own fault her clothes got torn,’ Itai says. He looks sadly at me as though he’s lost something very dear to him. ‘Someone has to sew on all our buttons now you are gone,’ he says to me in broken English. ‘Do not worry. She is not one of us, but we will still take care of her.’

Mutti starts crying. Mr Goldblum shakes his handkerchief out of the pocket of his coat and banknotes fall from it, dirty scraps of paper fluttering into the blood that swells in a pool towards him. I lurch to catch ‘em before they soak into the darkness but trip over something at my feet.

The man’s lying there, the man from the pub, the one who leered and drank and leered some more before he grabbed at me with his greasy fingers. He’s trying to sing his dirty songs at me again, but the dark gash at his throat bubbles and glitters as the air pops through. His trousers are round his ankles, but that swollen bit of flesh he tried to shove into me has shriveled back in on itself, into the shadows.

‘You ‘ad it comin’ to you, you little sow! You play the Devil’s music, you end up in hell—’ His mouth is moving but the voice is coming from behind me and I turn to find his friend standin’ there, his tankard still full and dripping.

‘We didn’t win the bloody war so you could come over ‘ere—’

He yanks me close, singin’ hard and loud in my face, his breath hot and beery, his spit pocking my cheeks, but the tune is wrong for his brutal words, it’s Brahms, like I used to play at Miss Worthington’s Music School on a Sunday afternoon, and someone’s whistling, shrill, like a copper’s whistle—

I’m trying to run, but my feet are stuck in that bastard’s blood, I can hear the clank of handcuffs at the end of the alley, Mutti’s crying for me as the handcuffs close over my finger, gold and hard, but I’m trying to shake them off so I can get to the end of ‘Potato Head Blues’—

It ain’t the first time I’ve woken up screaming.

My arms flail, throwin’ off the heavy hands that grasp mine so tight. I glance wildly around me. The unfamiliar ceiling, dirty white and edged with rust. The round window behind the sofa, nudging in its hinge as the gale batters it from outside. The whole tiny room is spinning round me and I feel sick. I struggle to sit up, shudderin’, grabbin’ on to anything that’ll steady me, but my eyes are still darting round, tryin’ to remember where I am. This is no jail cell, but I feel trapped right enough.

‘Lucille? Liebchen?’

I’m slow to remember someone was holdin’ me. I drag my eyes back to a young man kneeling beside the sofa. I frown at ‘im and he frowns back, deep creases in a pale forehead beneath a neat side-parting of fine blond hair, his eyes saucer-wide and black with longing behind his wire-framed spectacles.

Nur ein Albtraum—

‘A nightmare,’ I say, correctin’ him to the language I want to speak.

‘It is me,’ he answers, this time in heavily accented English. ‘You remember? I am Gregor?’ His eyes flicker to my hands, and I stare down at them. There is a thin gold band around my ring finger, a little too big even for my long fingers and strong knuckles.

I gulp down air and try to think, try to remember what happened last time I woke up screamin’. But it don’t get any easier.

The Victrola is cranking out a Brahms Étude, but the boat is rolling and the needle’s jumpin’, squawkin’ out the same unfinished bars again and again. I struggle off the sofa and go to it, putting the stylus back in its cradle. Without the music there’s nothing to hide the dreadful wrenchin’ of the trawler against the waves, the grunt of the steam engine beneath our feet or the drip-drip of water from the ceiling into a tin bowl in the corner. Glass bottles rattle in a cabinet on the wall. The cabin reeks of antiseptic and oil burnin’ in the lamps.

‘Lucille?’

I hear Gregor stand up behind me. As his hands settle on my shoulders the memories settle with ‘em, the endless blood drains away from the darkness of my imagination, and I remember. I can’t help lookin’ down at my finger again.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, bright as I can. ‘It ain’t fair on you.’

I turn to face him and his hands drift gently down my arms, his thumb snaggin’ on a hole in the sleeve of the thin jumper I’m wearing. None of these clothes are mine. I stole some of ‘em, and borrowed the rest. When we dock in New Jersey I’ll probably go ashore in a blouse, combis and a pair of boots. Everyone on this boat needs all they can get if they’re going to survive.

‘I will buy you the new clothes,’ says Gregor. ‘It is just for now you must wear these.’

‘What kind of bride am I?’ I say, forcin’ a light laugh. ‘I steal your bed, stop you from sleepin’, and dress like a man.’

I glance at the tangle of blankets on the floor next to the sofa. This cabin is for a doctor workin’ and livin’ alone. There ain’t no married couples or families on this boat. The captain won’t have ‘em, no matter how desperate they are, no matter how much they’ll pay. It’s hard enough to dock a boat that shouldn’t be there. And people who are scared of being separated only draw attention to themselves.

I think of Mutti. When I told her what’d happened to me, when she realised there was no other way, she let me go quietly. She was only screamin’ in my dream. But I can hear her even now.

The marriage bed can wait, Gregor had said, time for that when we get home to Port Republic. But no amount of decency ain’t stopped him imaginin’ what I might be hidin’ beneath these shabby things, and his hands often linger when they draw a strand of hair from my cheek or pass me something I’ve dropped. I’d never believed in love at first sight, never even seen it before Gregor found me hopelessly wanderin’ the docks in Bristol. Oh yes, it was tinged with pity, I’m not daft enough to pretend it weren’t. But I felt the breath catch in his throat as he looked at me. And I was so desperate to get out of England I never considered I couldn’t learn to feel the same way.

I look round the room again. It’s his room alright. I barely know ‘im, but everything there is to know about my week-old husband is here in this room. The neatness of his surgical instruments cleaned and wrapped in their leather cases. A book of Shakespeare’s poetry abandoned on the blankets, pencil markings and underlinings the only sign that if he feels every word he don’t quite understand ‘em. The diplomas from medical school in New Jersey that hang above the clock. It swings on its chain against the wall, its hands dividin’ the face at something past two in the morning. Is that something past two in London or New Jersey, I wonder.

Suddenly my eyes sting with tears and I sag back against the Victrola. Gregor grabs at me and pulls me to him, his thin arms feelin’ uncertainly round my back, the sweet musty smell of cedar seepin’ out his clothes as he holds me. I cling on ‘cause I have no-one else, but my hands are balled into fists and I try not to feel the ring as it digs into my fingers.

‘Every person who takes this boat awakes like you do,’ he murmurs in my ear. ‘The dark. The smell. The wide sea everywhere. Ist eine Reise in die Vergangenheit.

Something in the crossing reminds us of the very thing we’s runnin’ away from.

Prison is what I dreaded for what I did back home.

But prison is where I am.

The next afternoon, Gregor brings me a present. He’s been down in the hold, the gloomy pit mockingly called Steerage by the others who journey in the decks beneath my feet, seein’ to a fellow with a bad wound in his leg. It’s a bullet wound. I knew that the minute I saw ‘im on the dock, the captain watchin’ while Gregor decided if the feller was fit to travel. But it seems his money was good, doubly good if you get my meanin’, and the captain let him board on condition that Gregor fixed ‘im up good enough to walk before we reached New Jersey. The boat only docks in New Jersey if the captain can guarantee the harbourmaster that his stowaways would pass the medical inspection if the boat was forced to dock proper at Ellis Island. He don’t give a damn about who we are or what we done that brings us beggin’ to his boat. But he don’t want no-one dyin’ or goin’ out their minds on the way over. And to be sure of that he needs a doctor, a good ‘un. A doctor with a good heart. Who offered to work for free this crossing if the captain would carry an extra passenger who didn’t have the forty quid to make her way, and marry them as soon as the anchor was hauled up.

Gregor comes back into the cabin sheepish-like, holdin’ the present out to me. I try to smile at him, kind, caring — I want to be kind, I do, even though my heart is dead because I killed a man. In the daylight I think of the Lucille who defended herself as some friend of a friend of a friend, another girl at the factory, a barmaid in one of the pubs I used to play piano in. It’s only at night she threatens to smother me from inside.

The present, flat and square, is wrapped in a bit of newspaper, the print smudged, the paper damp from days at sea. I try not to think of home when I unwrap it. Gregor’s fingers are twitchin’ as I peel off the paper, and I pretend not to notice when he lifts the lid on the Victrola. I can’t bear another afternoon of listenin’ to Brahms while Gregor begs me to explain to ‘im how the tunes weave in and out—

But the centre of the record is reddish-brown, rimmed with a ring of gold.

Gold indeed. The classy cream signature of the OKeh label. I run my fingers over the lettering.

‘Where d’you get this?’ I mumble, unable to lift my eyes from the words in front of me.

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five.

Skid-Dat-De-Dat (Hardin).

Lil Hardin. Armstrong’s wife. Armstrong’s piano player.

My own fingers twitch.

‘Es gibt eine grosse automatische Musikbox—’

‘In English. Please.’

His expression is awkward and I feel guilty. But I can’t be a dutiful German wife.

‘They call it Selectaphone. It was in the cargo für London,’ I pretend not to notice the smuggled word, ‘special order, but the buyer never collect, so she goes back to Atlantic City, where she came from. If they take her.’ He hesitates, equally guilty now about his pronouns, and glances away from me. ‘She— It is a little broken now.’

‘You broke into it to get this out?’

‘The sea, last night,’ he says curtly. ‘Every other record is kaputt.’

I caress the wax disc with my thumb as though I might hear the music seep through my skin, then reluctantly I hold the record out to him. I want to be grateful— I am grateful. Lil Hardin heard me screamin’ and she came to me like an angel.

Gregor takes the record and I stretch my fingers in my lap. The ring rolls loosely against my knuckles. My heart is beatin’ fast, ‘cause I ain’t never heard this number before, even though I can tell you every disc Armstrong cut in 1926, and who played with ‘im on it.

‘I have not heard this jazz before, but I am sure I will like it,’ he says uneasily, setting the record carefully on the turntable. He cranks the machine then lifts the needle and sets it down. The Victrola crackles as though it’s taking a breath of dirty air, then it belches forth a few glorious notes from Armstrong’s cornet that bend and strain to hold their pitch. It is dirty, wide and deep and dirty like the River Thames.

Gregor’s eyes widen. There ain’t none of the purity of his beloved Brahms. Johnny Dodds makes that clarinet stretch and sigh ‘til the notes are almost broke. You can’t hardly hear Lil Hardin’s pounding piano beat ‘cept for one beautiful little moment when she floats and falls through a gap left by the others. I can almost see Armstrong lookin’ over his shoulder and smilin’ at her. And then his voice breaks into a mouthful of scattin’ nonsense, as raw and meaningless and brassy as Kid Ory’s trombone.

Gregor shudders.

I get up quickly and go to the Victrola to lift the needle off, spare his agony, but he snatches at my hand and moves between me and the machine. His fingers writhe hard against mine but he’s noddin’ his head in time with the beat, he’s tryin’ to understand. And then Armstrong answers his own falling cornet call with a wail of agony and longin’ that twists my heart and the song ends.

My palms are sweatin’ and Gregor’s fingers slide across ‘em, trying to get a grip on me. He swallows hard, his Adam’s Apple bobbin’ beneath the thin pale skin of his throat, his eyes as black as I’ve ever seen ‘em, so drunk is he on shock and desire. He licks his lips nervously, then he releases one of my hands and without breakin’ my gaze, he sets the disc to play again. Then he slides his hand across the small of my back, his short nervous breaths drownin’ in Armstrong’s blue horn. He draws me closer, his narrow hips pressing against mine, his clean shaven cheek unfamiliar against my forehead, then his mouth lowers, his breath brushin’ my eyelashes, my nose, finally my lips. He is as gentle as Armstrong and his band are not, and I am torn between them. For the craving I feel is for the music not the man, and though I let him kiss me, let his tongue dart between my lips, do not flinch when I feel him grow stiff against me, it is to the darkened clubs of Chicago that Armstrong takes me in my head and my heart.

So when Gregor locks the door and leads me to the sofa, gently unbuttonin’ his shirt and then mine, I close my eyes and though I’ve never done this before, I try to do what’s asked of me without fear or too much hatred for myself.

For I’m going to America. I’m really going to America.

*****

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