Death in the Raj, serial rapists and adrenaline junkies

Sunday Times, 24 October 2021

Abir Mukherjee’s terrific crime novels are set in India in the 1920s. The Shadows of Men (Harvill Secker £12.99) is vivid and brutal, taking place at a moment when the murder of a Hindu politician in Calcutta risks sparking a religious war. Mukherjee’s detective, Captain Sam Wyndham, is a First World War veteran who has had to overcome an opium addiction to keep his job. He shares digs with his Indian sergeant, Surendranath Banerjee, and Mukherjee explores both men’s misconceptions about each other.

In the fifth in the series, Banerjee becomes the chief suspect in the murder investigation and Wyndham struggles frantically to save him from a death sentence. In a shift from the earlier books, the story alternates between the two men’s voices, giving Banerjee’s view of the Raj for the first time. Mukherjee’s novels are becoming more political, deftly using the conventions of the crime genre to expose the racist assumptions of the period.

The depiction of sexual violence in crime fiction is a controversial subject. The veteran American author Michael Connelly and the multi-award-winning German crime writer Oliver Bottini have both put rape at the heart of their new novels, dealing with the subject with greater sensitivity than some of their contemporaries.


In The Dark Hours (Orion £20), Connelly’s detective, Renée Ballard of the LAPD, is pursuing a couple of serial rapists when she’s diverted to a separate investigation involving the murder of a reformed gang member. It’s a clever device, avoiding the pitfalls of having the rapes centre stage while showing how few resources are put into investigating sexual violence. Ballard’s interaction with the victims is sympathetic, while her investigation into the murder keeps up the tension.

Bottini’s novel Night Hunters (MacLehose £18.99), translated by Jamie Bulloch, is the fourth in his superb Black Forest series. Two teenage boys discover a badly beaten young woman in a barn. Shockingly they do not call the police, but lock the woman inside with the intention of returning at night to inflict further violence.

One of the boys is murdered before they can carry out this plan, but it’s a stomach-churning opening, part of an unflinching commentary on the nature of male violence. Bottini’s main character is a woman, and both novels suggest that the rapists would go free without a female officer determined to secure justice for the victims.

On the Edge (Verve £9.99) is a promising debut by Jane Jesmond. A young woman is in rehab recovering from drug addiction after a free climbing accident in which her ex-boyfriend suffered life-changing injuries. Jenifry Shaw has promised to give up the sport, but when she returns to her childhood home in Cornwall, she wakes from a drugged sleep to find herself dangling from the parapet of a lighthouse. Jesmond explores the adrenaline rush of risky sports in this original mystery.


The Hounding of Kathleen Stock, Tuesday 12 October 2021

It is staggeringly reckless to target a woman in this way


Trades unions are meant to stand up for people who are being bullied at work. But that clearly doesn’t apply to the University and College Union, an organisation so steeped in extreme gender ideology that its Sussex branch has decided to join in the attacks on a philosophy lecturer


Last week, posters appeared around the campus at Sussex University, calling for Professor Kathleen Stock to be fired. Amid a vile collection of slurs, they described her as ‘one of this wretched island’s most prominent transphobes, espousing a bastardised version of radical feminism’.


At a time when violence against women dominates the headlines, it is staggeringly reckless to target a woman in this manner. Not that long ago, union officials and colleagues would have rushed to Stock’s defence, condemning the campaign by a group as a deliberate attempt to frighten her off campus — and an attack on free speech.


Not anymore. So captured is the UCU that its local branch has issued a statement full of high-sounding sentiments — ‘we oppose all forms of bullying, harassment, and intimidation of staff and students’ — before coming down firmly on the side of the people persecuting Stock. It goes on to demand an ‘urgent investigation’ into ‘institutional transphobia’ at the university — a claim made, as always, without a shred of evidence.


It’s a technique familiar to feminists like Stock who have been viciously traduced by trans activists and even, in the case of the writer Julie Bindel, physically assaulted while leaving a meeting at another university. It’s called DARVO — deny, attack, reverse victim and offender — and trans extremists use it all the time to smear their opponents. Now it’s being employed against a woman for whom, all too evidently, the campus is not a safe working environment.


This is the contradiction at the heart of trans extremism: it is no longer safe for women to call for single-sex spaces that protect us from an epidemic of male violence. Gender ideology promotes the lie, too readily accepted by sections of the media, that trans extremists are at risk from feminists, not the other way round. Feminists who write books, like Kathleen Stock and Helen Joyce, hold meetings and wear ribbons in suffragette colours. How terrifying is that?


The results of accepting this lie are now all too obvious. At one of the country’s leading universities, a woman with a distinguished body of work can no longer risk going to her office, while the very institution that should defend her is calling for her to be investigated. This should be a turning point — and whoever is running the UCU, assuming anyone actually is, should hang their heads in shame.

Crime round-up

Sunday Times, 3 October 2021

When a young woman is unexpectedly given a cottage in the Cotswolds by her grandmother, she can hardly believe her luck. Yet Saffron and her boyfriend have barely moved in when their builders uncover skeletal remains, in Claire Douglas’s spine-chilling novel The Couple at No 9 (Penguin £7.99). As detectives realise there are two sets of bones buried in the garden, it becomes clear that Saffron’s dream home is a crime scene.

Her grandmother Rose lived in the cottage four decades ago, when she was on the run from a violent man, and is the only person who might know how the bodies got there. However, Rose has Alzheimer’s and becomes distressed — or evasive — when Saffron asks about the double murder. Douglas writes sensitively about dementia in this heartbreaking novel about how far a desperate woman will go to survive.

Peter Papathanasiou is a new name in Australian crime writing. His debut novel, The Stoning (MacLehose £16.99), is a brutal, unflinching look at the country’s treatment of refugees. The outback town of Cobb is home to a divided community that resents the presence of a vast detention centre on its outskirts, even though many locals depend on it for a living. Feelings are running high when a local teacher is found tied to a tree, apparently stoned to death, in a crude attempt to throw blame on Muslim men in the centre. Detective Sergeant George Manolis, who grew up in Cobb, is sent to lead the investigation and finds himself painfully reminded of his Greek-Australian roots. Not an easy read, but political crime fiction of a high order.

Liane Moriarty writes about a very different section of Australian society in Apples Never Fall (Michael Joseph £20). Joy and Stan Delaney live in an affluent suburb of Sydney, where they have recently retired from running a tennis school. Retirement has intensified strains in the couple’s marriage, and Joy’s sudden disappearance forces the couple’s four grown-up children to confront the possibility that their father might have harmed their mother. Moriarty’s portrait of a tennis-mad family is convincing if over-long, and she keeps a stunning revelation up her sleeve until the final pages.

John Banville’s April in Spain (Faber £14.99) is set in a period that feels like the distant past, even though it’s only the 1950s. In this eighth Quirke novel, the Irish pathologist with a drink problem is on holiday in northern Spain with his wife when he spots a young woman from Dublin whom he believed to be dead. He becomes convinced she is the niece of a prominent politician, living under an assumed identity after a family scandal that resulted in her supposed murder, but his bungling attempts to establish the truth have disastrous consequences. Banville’s sly observations about his characters are a joy to read.

Susan Hill’s crime novels are set in the fictional town of Lafferton, where her detective, Simon Serrailler, struggles to hold back the encroaching tide of big-city crime. A Change of Circumstance (Chatto £20) centres on his investigation into county lines, a headline-grabbing type of crime in which children and teenagers are used to deliver drugs. There are some harrowing moments in this unsparing novel, which shows how easily vulnerable youngsters can be exploited.

Sack Cressida Dick

Someone must pay the consequences for the Met’s failures, Friday 1 October 2021

It’s hard to imagine a more abject admission of failure. Here is Scotland Yard, telling women what to do if stopped by a lone male officer who is behaving suspiciously: we should “seek assistance” by shouting to a passer-by, running into a house or waving down a bus. Waving down a bus? And the Met police commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, is still in her job?

When the country’s largest police force is reduced to advising women to rely on bus drivers and dog-walkers, we really have gone through the looking-glass. The police are paid to protect the public, but now the Met is telling us to throw ourselves on the mercy of strangers because we don’t trust its officers.

And we are right not to trust them. The sentencing of Wayne Couzens, the serving officer who abducted, raped and murdered Sarah Everard, confirms what many of us have been saying for years. It isn’t just that the police are not doing their job — although the vanishingly small conviction rate for sexual predators shows that they aren’t.

They don’t understand the behaviour of perpetrators, so much so that they don’t even recognise dangerous men in their own ranks. Couzens was a firearms officer in the Met, authorised to carry a weapon, despite being reported to colleagues for several incidents of indecent exposure — the most recent while he was planning the abduction that has sent him to prison for the rest of his life.

What about his colleagues? There were 594 complaints of sexual misconduct against Met employees between 2012 and 2018, of which only 119 were upheld. The Centre for Women’s Justice has launched a super complaint, highlighting failures to protect victims of domestic abuse and arguing that women are being let down when they turn to the police for help.

Not just let down: in April, a PC was dismissed from the Met after hitting a teenage girl at least 30 times with his baton. The girl, who was black and had learning difficulties, had approached him for help after running away from an escorted walk. He has not been charged with any offence. The following month, two Met officers pleaded guilty to taking selfies with the bodies of two sisters who has been savagely murdered in a park in north London.

Following Couzens’s conviction, it has emerged that five serving officers, including three from Scotland Yard, are being investigated for sharing racist and misogynistic messages with him on WhatsApp. A probationary officer in the Met, who later helped guard the area where Ms Everard’s remains were found, has been investigated over allegations that he shared a violent graphic on WhatsApp.

This is not just a case of the “occasional bad ‘un’”, in Dick’s repellent phrase. It reveals a culture where too many male officers have contemptuous, misogynistic attitudes towards women. Victims who report serious crimes, including domestic abuse and rape, are treated as though they are the criminals. They have their lives torn apart, while predators like Couzens are free to walk the streets — or check out handcuffs and a gun, in his case.

This week’s revelations have shamed the police. They have got away with failing women for decades, all the way back to those terrible episodes of victim-blaming during the Yorkshire Ripper investigation in the Seventies. The Home Secretary needs to sack Dick and announce a public inquiry into institutional misogyny within the police. Nothing else will do.


Feminism – though not as I know it

Against White Feminism

by Rafia Zakaria (Hamish Hamilton £14.99)

Sunday Times, 12 September 2021
For some time now it has been open season on feminism. It is part of a wider current, driven by identity politics and a willingness to demonise anyone who disagrees. Into this heated atmosphere comes Against White Feminism by Rafia Zakaria, a lawyer and columnist born in Pakistan but now living in the US.

“White feminism” as a derogatory term, caricaturing it as a movement that imposes its preoccupations on women who are not white or middle class, has been around for a while. People claim it is reflective more of a state of mind than skin colour; even Pragna Patel, a founding member of Southall Black Sisters, has been accused of being a “white feminist”.

However, Zakaria goes for the jugular. Building bridges is definitely not what this book is about, and everywhere she finds feminists who accept “the benefits conferred by white supremacy at the expense of people of colour”. Defining people in terms they would not recognise or accept is a key ploy of identity politics, and feminists are lumped together and traduced throughout.

In Zakaria’s sketchy account, the baddies include the suffragettes, although I
am not convinced that Mary Clarke, who died after being force-fed in prison, benefited from what Zakaria describes as “racial superiority”. She is not a generous interpreter of feminism’s founding texts, wondering whether authors such as Simone de Beauvoir, whom she accuses of “underpinnings of white privilege”, should be “eliminated from the story of feminism altogether”.

The book’s most serious flaw lies in its singularly ill-informed account of modern feminism. If the movement has a single unifying feature it is an analysis of the way oppression of women is linked to female bodies, regardless of race, class, age, religion or sexual orientation. Yet this is precisely what Zakaria denies: “An aversion to acknowledging lived trauma permeates white feminism, which in turn produces a discomfort and alienation from women who have experienced it.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. In this country refuges for victims of domestic and sexual violence were built by feminists who insisted they should be open to all women. But then Zakaria makes the equally bizarre claim that “there is an assumption that the really strong women — the ‘real’ feminists, reared by other white feminists — do not end up in abusive situations.” The experience of abuse is what brings many women to feminism — and brings us together.

Identity politics is rife with such facile judgments, designed to make its advocates feel superior. Zakaria appears to have missed the irony of dismissing every species of feminism but her own in the name of a supposedly more egalitarian politics. But when I see feminists being pitted against each other in this mean-spirited way, I can almost hear the patriarchy laughing.



Crime round-up

Sunday Times, 5 September 2021

Imagine being shut up with a dozen strangers in one of the most hostile environments on Earth. That is what awaits an A&E doctor, Kate North, when she arrives at a UN research station in Antarctica in Emma Haughton’s outstanding crime fiction debut, The Dark (Hodder £12.99). Kate has arrived to replace the station’s previous doctor, who died in an accident on the ice, and she walks into an atmosphere of rivalry and suspicion.

Trust is vital to everyone’s survival, but as the season of 24-hour darkness approaches, petty disagreements take on a more sinister aspect. One of Kate’s new colleagues drops hints that her predecessor’s death was not an accident, and there is no way out when a member of the station staff is murdered. Haughton writes vividly about a claustrophobic community where highly trained professionals have to live with the ever-present threat that a piece of vital technology might break down; her novel is really a superlative locked-room mystery, given a contemporary feel by concerns about climate change.

A Line to Kill (Century £20) is the latest instalment in Anthony Horowitz’s series of novels featuring a perpetually anxious crime writer and a taciturn private investigator. Their collaboration on books about the detective’s most spectacular cases has never been easy, and it becomes more fraught when Horowitz sends the pair to Alderney to take part in a hastily arranged literary festival.
There are some delicious comic moments as they encounter their fellow participants, including a loud-mouthed TV chef and a volatile French performance poet. A party thrown by one of the festival’s sponsors ends in murder, but the best thing about this diverting novel is Horowitz’s stream of self-deprecating observations about being a writer.
SR White is a rising star of Australian crime fiction. Prisoner (Headline £18.99) has a startling opening scene in which a young man is found crucified in a swamp. The victim turns out to be a convicted rapist, released from prison only 24 hours earlier, who had been exchanging letters with two sisters who live in the only house for miles. If it sounds sensational, there is much more to this unusual novel than first appears, and White’s account of the murder investigation is gripping.
Ann Cleeves is best known for novels set in Shetland and the north of England, but her Two Rivers series is based in Devon. The first novel in the set, The Long Call, was a bestseller and The Heron’s Cry (Macmillan £20) has the same slightly melancholic atmosphere. The plot revolves around the murder of a retired doctor, who is killed with a shard of glass from a vase created by his daughter, a talented glassblower — one of several melodramatic touches in an uneven novel. The chilliness of the central character, DI Matthew Venn, spreads through the pages, and his relationship with his husband feels very much observed from the outside.
The new novel by Paula Hawkins, A Slow Fire Burning (Doubleday £20), is pure melodrama. The author of the bestselling The Girl on the Train has come up with a set of highly emotional characters who live in a diverse neighbourhood around Regent’s Canal in north London, each of them bursting with disappointment, grief
and resentment. The starting point is a murder on a canal boat, but the plot spreads out to encompass long-ago events, including the apparently accidental death of a toddler and the abduction of two schoolgirls. The novel is fast-paced, highly charged and carried off with so much confidence it is hard to resist.


Six months after Sarah Everard disappeared, women don’t feel any safer in Britain

When rapes and murders are called ‘isolated incidents’ and our justice system is suspicious of victims, it’s no surprise nothing has changed.

Daily Telegraph, Thursday 3 September 2021

Six months ago today, the disappearance of a 33-year-old marketing executive, Sarah Everard, shocked the nation. A week later, the revelation that she had been abducted and killed by a serving police officer while walking home in south London caused widespread horror. If Sarah wasn’t safe at 9.30pm in the evening, in a residential area of London, what about the rest of us?

Over the next days and weeks, we stepped up precautions that were already second nature to women up and down the country. We checked in on each other, texting to make sure our friends had got home safely and avoided routes where we might feel vulnerable. 

We talked among ourselves about what happened to Sarah, scarcely able to contemplate her final hours, while some male friends began to acknowledge that a woman’s experience of being out alone at night is entirely different from a man’s. But we also had to point out that many women live with violent men and don’t even feel safe at home.

“Surely this will lead to change?” I was asked by people who wanted to feel that something good would emerge from this terrible case. I didn’t think it would – and I was right to be sceptical. Almost half of women (48 per cent) feel less safe than they did in March, according to a new survey conducted by Bauer Media, despite the fact that so many people felt that Sarah’s rape and murder was a watershed moment.

If more of us feel unsafe these days, it is because we are sick of being told that rapes and murders are “isolated incidents” – and being given patronising advice such as not wearing headphones when walking alone.

Why would we feel safe? Reported rapes in London increased from 698 in April to 847 in June, and the rolling 12-month total reached 8,182 a month later. That is more than 20 every day in the capital alone, but we know that most rapes are never reported. Those that do rarely lead to a suspect being charged – fewer than one in 60, according to figures released in May – and the conviction rate is even lower.

A criminal justice system that allows more than 50,000 rapists to remain free each year in England and Wales is a threat to women. Earlier this year, the Home Office received more than 180,000 responses to a consultation on a new violence against women and girls (VAWG) strategy, giving some indication of how strongly people feel about this shameful failure of the state to protect half the population. Not everyone, however: last month a sculpture set up in a Sheffield park to draw attention to VAWG was razed to the ground in an arson attack.

The government’s VAWG strategy was published in July and one of its innovations, a pilot scheme that allows women to make anonymous reports about areas where they feel unsafe, goes live today. It all sounds well-meant, but do police have the resources to put more officers into areas flagged up in the pilot? Cuts to police budgets have had a catastrophic impact on their ability to respond even to serious crimes, and it doesn’t seem likely that anonymous reports of harassment will be a priority. Another innovation, a £5million safety at night fund, doesn’t even amount to £1 for every woman who doesn’t feel safe.

The most pressing problem is a criminal justice system that is imbued with suspicion towards victims. Nothing highlights the imbalance more than the practise of asking women who have been raped to hand over their phones, rather than alleged perpetrators. The Government has made noises about placing limits on what officers can look at, but it is a long way from reversing the hugely damaging focus on the credibility of victims.

Women were anxious about trusting the police before Sarah’s murder, but rising VAWG rates – and thwarted expectations in its wake – have made everything worse. How many more women have to be attacked before murders and rapes become the priority they should already be? 

It could not be clearer that crimes against women escalate, starting from offences such as indecent exposure – yet warning signs about her killer, PC Wayne Couzens, did not lead to disciplinary action. When he was working in Kent, colleagues nicknamed him “the rapist” because of his attitude to women, yet he was able to transfer to a job as an armed officer with the Metropolitan police. Hundreds of allegations of domestic abuse have been made against serving officers, yet measures to identify predators in the force appear to be wholly inadequate.

The harsh reality is that nothing will change until sexual predators fear arrest, conviction and losing their liberty. And right now, we are no nearer to that than we were when Sarah Everard began her last walk through the streets of south London, half a year ago.


Is Richard Osman a one-trick pony?

Sunday Times, 29 August 2021

The Man Who Died Twice (Viking £18.99)

Richard Osman’s first novel, The Thursday Murder Club, was last year’s publishing sensation — and a mystery in its own right. It was simultaneously the fastest-selling crime debut since records began, shooting to No 1 in the bestseller charts, and a novel so flawed that it is hard to believe it would ever have been published without a celebrity’s name on the cover. Now his second, The Man Who Died Twice, looks set for success on the same scale.
Osman has stuck to a winning formula with his new book, setting it in the upmarket retirement village in Kent he invented for the first. It has, too, the same central characters, a quartet of sparky elderly people who amuse themselves by trying to solve cold murder cases. This time the plot revolves around the sudden reappearance of the ex-husband of Elizabeth, the retired MI5 agent who is always making oblique references to her colourful past. (Think a female James Bond, stuck in a retirement home in the home counties, and you get the idea.) The ex is on the run after stealing diamonds worth £20 million from a money launderer, a plot so hackneyed that it is hard to read without yawning.
Like the earlier novel, The Man Who Died Twice is an easy read. Osman is a familiar, engaging face from TV, and he has also benefited from an accident of timing that might explain much about his success, making his crime fiction debut last September at a moment when people had endured months of lockdowns and painful separations from relatives. The news might be full of grim stories about elderly people dying in care homes, but both books offer an idealised vision of old age. The central characters are in their seventies or eighties, but retain all their faculties and do not appear to have any financial problems as they run rings around the police.
Readers of the first novel will remember Ron, the fiery former trade union leader who has mellowed under the influence of his new friends. Ibrahim is a psychiatrist and the group’s intellectual. Finally there is Joyce, a former nurse and the most self-deprecating member of the group. With her endless digressions into trivia, she is also the character whose antecedents in crime fiction are most immediately recognisable.
In 1927 Agatha Christie introduced what would become one of her best-loved characters, Miss Marple, in a short story that later evolved into The Thirteen Problems. The book has a group of upper-middle-class friends gathering every Tuesday evening to discuss an unsolved murder; the American edition, published in 1933, is actually called The Tuesday Club Murders. Christie describes Miss Marple as “a pink and white pretty old lady who, although having led the most sheltered and Victorian of lives, nevertheless always appeared to be intimately acquainted with all the depths of human depravity”.
Osman’s Joyce is a modern-day equivalent of Miss Marple, as unshockable as Christie’s original but with some knowing and slightly anachronistic contemporary touches. At one point in the new novel she wishes there might be a gay affair in the retirement village: “We haven’t had one of those at Coopers Chase yet, and I
think everyone would enjoy it.” Osman seems strikingly keen on ticking all the diversity boxes, but it sits oddly in what can only be described as a tediously old-fashioned caper.
What is clear after reading both novels is that Osman is a very much a one-trick pony, whose chief device is subverting expectations about the elderly in a series of attention-grabbing asides. “She has heard all sorts over the years,” he writes of Elizabeth. “A snippet of conversation in a Berlin bar, a loose-lipped Russian sailor on shore leave in Tripoli.” Don’t expect to find out what the sailor said, though, because I doubt whether Osman knows himself.
He is essentially writing soap opera, and there is nothing wrong with that, but his characters are paper-thin. Ron is the only working-class character in the club and he turns out to be a bit of a thug, while Ibrahim might as well be called John for all we discover about his background. Most striking of all, however, are the murders, which hardly matter, acting as little more than devices to keep the whole thing going.

The most paradoxical thing about Osman’s success is that he is not really a crime writer at all. The Thursday Murder Club would not feature in my top 50 crime novels for 2020, let alone the top ten, and the new book is even weaker. Osman does not take murder seriously, dispatching characters with careless abandon, and both novels lack the underlying moral seriousness that is an essential ingredient of the best crime fiction.
There is no doubt that Osman is a phenomenon, but that says more about
the relationship between celebrity and publishing than it does about his writing. I suspect these are novels for readers who do not normally like crime fiction — and there appear to be plenty of those.