Book Launch: THE HANGING PSALM by Chris Nickson

hanging psalm

Leeds, 1820. Simon Westow, a Leeds thief-taker, knows all about lost property. But when he is asked to find the kidnapped daughter of a successful Leeds businessman, Simon and his assistant, Jane, face a challenge like no other. Could the answers lie within the streets of Leeds and a figure from Simon’s own past?




The book launch for THE HANGING PSALM by Chris Nickson took place in Leeds last week, and it went rather well! From shocking truths and a noose (eek!), to the sheer bliss of signing your own book, Chris looks back on a memorable evening at Waterstones Leeds.



A book launch is one of those events that authors tend to love and dread in equal measure. Finally the book is out there after so long writing it, revising, going through edits and proofs. You have your copies. It’s real, it’s tangible, and finally you have the chance to tell people about it. That’s the good side. Then there’s the fear that no one will show up, or that they’ll have it, or that no one will buy a copy . . . the stuff that fills nightmares.

I enjoy launches; all public appearances, in fact. It gives me a chance to be storyteller, actor, even a bit of a stand-up, to interact with people. The launch for THE HANGING PSALM was no different. I’d made notes, thought through my material in advance. Simon Westow, the book’s main character, is a thief-taker in 1820 Leeds. Talk a little about what a thief-taker did, about the policing then, or lack of it. About Simon’s background – the opening of the book summed that up, horrifying testimony to a commission about child labour. Enough to silence an audience, to shock them. Even more so when I explained I’m simply paraphrased real testimony for slightly after the period. Tell them about Jane, his teenage assistant, the circumstances that led her to become a street child at the age of eight.

I had them, I could feel it. And that in spite of the refurbishment of Waterstones Leeds going on all around us (trust me, creating an atmosphere with a circular saw buzzing on and off in the background isn’t easy). I had them and I held them, talking about the dangers of the night, the thieves and the whores, the pitch black streets and the constant stink of industry.

Get me started on Leeds, on injustice, on our history, and I can speak with the fervour of a preacher. It’s my passion, my subject. More than anything, it’s a case of knowing when to stop . . .

And to finish, because you always need a big finish, I read the proper hanging psalm (Psalm 51) while tying a noose. They were surprised. They may even have been impressed. I was simply relieved that I didn’t make a mess of it, as I hadn’t tied one in weeks. No, best not to ask more about that. So far the police haven’t come knocking at the door.

Some questions, maybe even a few answers. And prepare them before going out to Light Night in Leeds, a warning of what can lurk in the darkness, the quiet screams, the knife at the throat . . . in 1820.

Then they wanted to buy books. My new book. It’s a feeling like no other, signing your name with a Sharpie on the title page and thanking some because, dammit, they want to buy your book. It’s pure, blissful magic.

The deflation comes later, once the adrenaline wears off and you fade from the high. But while it lasts . . . yeah. Oh yeah.

THE HANGING PSALM is available now in the UK and from 1 January in the US. Find out more here.


BEHIND THE AUTHOR: an essay by Gerald Elias

G Elias B&WGerald Elias, internationally acclaimed violinist, composer, conductor, and author, shines a spotlight on the dark corners of the classical music world with his award-winning Daniel Jacobus murder mystery series – find out more about his novels at the end of the post.

A recent essay he wrote called ‘War & Peace. And Music’ has won the Nonfiction Creative Essay first prize on Utah Division of Arts and Museums Original Writers Competition. It is a wonderfully perceptive piece about last year’s Boston Symphony trip to Japan, and the role of music in bringing humanity together. You can read it below!

War and Peace. And Music.

An international concert tour’s main ingredient is, of course, music making. But as I wait at crowded Takadanobaba subway station in central Tokyo, I reflect there’s also a large dollop of goodwill cultural ambassador. And, looking ahead to my evening’s destination, a dash of culinary adventure thrown in.

A cheerily Smurflike tune signals my train’s arrival. Every Tokyo station has its own unique eight-second jingle—it’s a stretch to even call it music. Perhaps the reason for them is so that blind riders—or hung-over businessmen—can tell at which station they’re arriving. Just a theory.

I am on my way to join decades-old Tokyo friends who are treating me to a gourmet kaiseki dinner in the upscale Yoyogi Uehara neighborhood to celebrate the successful conclusion of the Boston Symphony’s smoothly planned and executed autumn 2017 concert tour. Its only hiccup—other than when I drank too much sake—was when the cargo truck from Tokyo carrying our string basses and all of our music arrived in Nagoya four hours late, delaying and abbreviating our first rehearsal. (The audience never knew the difference.)

For the dinner, my friend, Tetsuro, has brought along a buddy of his, a Japanese violinist named Kiichi Watanabe. As the first courses are served, Watanabe tells me in admirable English he had played for a time in the New Japan Philharmonic, on occasion with my old boss, Seiji Ozawa, the longtime music director of the Boston Symphony whose tenure with the orchestra ended in 2002. I mentioned that though I had performed with the Boston Symphony on the just completed tour, I had in fact left my full-time position with the orchestra years ago to become associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony.

“Joseph Silverstein!” Watanabe says, his eyes lighting up. “He conducted in Utah. Did you know him?” The answer was yes, and in many capacities. Before becoming the music director of the Utah Symphony he had been a renowned concertmaster of the Boston Symphony when I was a full-time member there. Before that, he had been my violin teacher at Yale University.

Thus began a long evening of “who do you know.” It was fortunate the dinner had so many courses because the connections were extensive. Watanabe had studied at Indiana, one of the foremost conservatories in the US, and in the early ‘90s was a student at the Tanglewood Music Center at the same time I was performing with the BSO, and where his chamber music coach was the eminent violinist and pedagogue, Louis Krasner (who, like Joey, had been one of my former teachers). Watanabe had revered both, calling Silverstein “a genius.” Not unusual among musicians, shared experiences had formed deep, enduring bonds that transcended cultural and national boundaries. When Tetsuro asked me whether a few weeks had been enough time for me to practice the music for the concerts, Mr. Watanabe burst out laughing even before I did, replying, “Of course. He’s a professional musician!” The fraternity is universal.

How the broader relationship between Americans and the Japanese has mended in the past seventy years is close to miraculous. A mere two generations ago, members of Tetsuro’s family were killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Now, Tetsuro’s seven-year old son calls me Uncle Jerry.

That’s not to say there aren’t reminders of the former divide. Arriving in Nagoya after a seemingly endless flight over the Pacific, I regained the use of my legs on the orchestra’s free day, exploring Nagoya’s modern, attractive downtown, rebuilt upon war-charred ruins. My destination was Nagoya Castle, the city’s prominent historic landmark, where today children romp in the surrounding gardens, and tourists like me lick green tea ice cream cones and take too many snapshots.

Adjacent to the fortress is the ancient palace, which was totally destroyed in the war. Currently in the final stages of painstaking reconstruction, using the same materials and exact design as the original, every detail down to the color of the tiger’s eyes in the silk screen murals has been lovingly recreated. It’s a spectacular achievement, a tribute to the stunning artistry and architecture of old Japan and the patient dedication of new Japan to throw substantial financial and artistic resources into reproducing it. The imposing castle fortress, with its massive stone works, is a reconstruction too, but was rebuilt back in 1959 with modern concrete and steel simply to provide the appearance of the original exterior. The inside, of modern design and functioning as an exhibit space, contains a gut-wrenching photo display of the wartime strafing of the city and castle.

Though the destruction of all that exquisite beauty was tragic and perhaps unnecessary, what must also be considered is the castle’s original politico-military purpose: to effectively unleash its own dogs of war when deemed necessary, inflicting untold casualties and death upon the enemies of the military rulers of the day. Indomitable for centuries, Nagoya castle finally succumbed in 1945, as all castles—real or metaphorical—inevitably do. Poetic justice? Perhaps not, but in one form or another, Nagoya Castle bears witness to the seemingly endless human cycle of brutality and reconciliation.

After spending four comfortable days in Nagoya—performing once there, followed by a run-out back and forth to Osaka, then by a concert in Kawasaki en route to Tokyo—the positive swing of history’s cycle could not have been more powerfully demonstrated than at the Boston Symphony’s concert in the embracing acoustics of Tokyo’s Suntory Hall on November 7. The featured work on the program was the Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, entitled “The Year 1905.”

Like many of Shostakovich’s symphonies, the eleventh is a musically graphic depiction of historic Russian events, in this case the Revolution of 1905. More specifically, it portrays the tragedy that triggered it: the massacre of innocent, peaceful petitioners—men, women, and children—mercilessly shot to death by the Tsar’s military forces on January 22, 1905 in front of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. Depending on which source one believes, anywhere from ninety-six to four-thousand people were killed. In the symphony we hear prayers, we hear armies marching, we hear the shooting, we hear the death and mourning. Finally, we hear the overpowering warning bell, called the tocsin. Shostakovich intended it as a warning not only in the historical context of the piece; it also tolls for the audience itself to beware! Beware of liberty deprived. Beware of the forces of despotism and militarism.

In the audience of the Tokyo performance on November 7 were two special guests: Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako, a couple beloved by the Japanese and respected around the world. As we played the Shostakovich, I couldn’t help but wonder what might be going through their minds, and from time to time I looked up at them—they were sitting in the first balcony in a direct line cross-stage from me—to see if I could read their faces. I was curious because here was the son of the emperor of Japan, the royal equivalent of the Tsar of Russia, whose grandfather, Emperor Hirohito, approved the order to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. Yes, music is to be enjoyed, just like the art at Nagoya Castle. But for Shostakovich there was much more at stake. Music was his power: the power to inform and, in the process, to teach, to foment, and to heal. (Being true to royal form, the Prince and Princess betrayed no other sentiment than to appear to greatly enjoy the performance.)

What a mysterious phenomenon music is! A select group of people spend their lifetimes learning to blow air through tubes, scrape with horsehair on strings pulled taut over a wooden box, and bang on stretched skins with sticks, all to create uniquely complex sets of vibrations, the instructions for which appear as black dots on paper, many of them centuries old. This group of blowers, scrapers, and bangers then travels around the world where thousands of people with a different culture and history, who have worked many hours in order earn enough money to pay for the opportunity to gather en masse in a big room, absorb those vibrations into their bodies. When it’s over, the listeners slap their hands together and go home. Somehow, miraculously, even when the vibrations are about strife, the strife is gone.

Maybe that’s why it will be music that saves humanity from the wanton cruelty we seem determined to inflict upon each other. Maybe that’s why the goodwill component of tours such as the Boston Symphony’s to Japan is more critical than we ever imagined. As I say good-bye to my friends after our big dinner on the town, I recall a written sign at Takadanobaba station as the train arrived and I heard that innocuous little jingle. At first I merely took the sign’s meaning at face value. Now, upon reflection, it carries the same portentous weight of Shostakovich’s tocsin. The sign read, “Doors close soon after the melody ends.”

Want to read more by Gerald Elias?

His most recent novel, Spring Break, is available now from Severn House.

spring break

Reclusive, blind violin pedagogue Daniel Jacobus is about to become enmeshed in a culture of sexual harassment and its cover-up at the highest levels. When a faculty member dies of natural causes, only the curious behaviour of a violin student at Jacobus’s master class is an indication to him that something may be terribly amiss.

Find out more about this title here.

#BookExtract: A SUDDEN DEATH IN CYPRUS by Michael Grant

sudden death in cyprusDavid Mitre is leading an uneventful life in Cyprus until he’s witness to a brutal murder. When the authorities start investigating, they find a common link between the victim and David . . . they’re both fugitives. Fighting his instincts to flee, David is embroiled in helping the FBI solve the case in the hope of getting them off his back permanently.




Fight or flight? Fugitive David Mitre faces an impossible decision when he becomes involved in a deadly conspiracy on the stunning island of Cyprus. Featuring a fascinating lead character and a clever plot, this fast-paced thriller by Michael Grant, a new author for Severn House, kept us on the edge of our seats. Take a sneak peek at the first chapter below . . .

At any given moment there are about two hundred thousand fugitives from American justice and about forty thousand fugitives from Her Majesty’s justice, running free in the world. Two of those fugitives, one from each nation, were within fifty yards of each other on the beach a bit north of Paphos, on the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus.
One was about to die. The other was not.

I was the ‘not.’


I wasn’t strictly on the beach, rather I was on a stool beside the tiki bar drinking Keo, the execrable local beer, and wondering if the immediate vicinity was sufficiently sparsely-populated that I could light a cigar without causing a riot. Cypriots probably wouldn’t care, but this was not a Cypriot beach, it was a tourist and expat beach. The Paphos region at the extreme western edge of Cyprus is home to thousands of expats, mostly Brits, but with Russians, Germans, Israelis, Lebanese, various Balkan types, Scandinavians and the occasional American thrown in for good measure.

The British fugitive, the one who was about to be subtracted, was a woman, perhaps forty-five, with forgettable brown hair and shoulders that glowed faintly pink, suggesting a failure of sunblock. She lay on a blue-and-white-striped canvas chaise longue, facing the sea, her back to me. Her chaise was tilted at just the right angle to aim her cleavage in my general direction, though I doubt it was intentional, but as I had already seen a fair bit of the Mediterranean, and all of the beach, and there was nothing more compelling presenting itself, I spent some time contemplating those sunburned swells.

She was not on sand – there are precious few sand beaches on Cyprus, and the Turks have the best of them – but on the grass just before the sea wall which left her two or three feet above the narrow, pebbly strand below. Her chaise was in a row of identical chairs and she was reading a book on actual paper. A bottle of local white wine – rather better than the beer – rested in a bucket at her elbow. Like approximately all women over the age of bikini, she wore a broad straw hat and whenever she looked up, the back of her hat came down and blocked my view. When she looked back down at the book, I saw plump pink breasts and a blue one-piece bathing suit and legs that probably looked better without perspective turning them into tapers ending in tiny sandals.

‘Peek-a-boob,’ I said to Theodoros, the barman, as the hat brim lifted again.

Theodoros – twenty-something, dark bed head, dark bedroom eyes, with competent but accented English and a degree in chemistry – stopped polishing a glass and stared at me.

I grinned at him. ‘See, it’s peek-a-boob because—’

‘I understand, Mr Mitre. I’m just not going to encourage you with a phony laugh.’

I couldn’t see the book the woman was reading, but my few needy glimpses of the cover assured me that it was not one of mine. I write. Now. Didn’t always write, but now I write and have produced five reasonably well-received, and moderately successful – or perhaps not entirely unsuccessful – mystery novels, all set in the city of New Midlands, a fictional locale located almost exactly where you’d find Chicago. New Midlands: Chicago, but with far more rich and attractive people committing far more complex and fascinating crimes than actual criminals have the energy, imagination or resources to pull off.

‘I’ve heard you phony-laugh for customers before, Theo,’ I said.

‘My contempt for that particular . . . jape . . . is evidence of my underlying respect for you, Mr Mitre.’

I liked Theodoros because he spoke English well enough to get a joke. Everyone on Cyprus speaks English, or thinks they do, but Greek to English is a big leap and few manage it. There aren’t many bartenders who can drop jape into conversation.

‘Well, grab me another beer, Theo, and I’ll come up with a more sophisticated witticism.’

My name is David Mitre, at present. I’ve gone through a few names, including the insufferable ‘Carter Cannon,’ which was ridiculous, like a superhero’s alliterative secret identity. I’ve also been Martin, Alex, Frank, Thomas, Michael and now, David. The David Mitre Wikipedia page uses the word ‘reclusive’ three times. There’s an author headshot but it doesn’t take much Google-fu to discover that it’s a stock photo. The model looks a bit like me, but not really. For one thing, Mr Stock Photo grows a much more convincing beard than I could ever manage; I stay clean-shaven. Mr Stock Photo also doesn’t quite capture the subtle fight-or-flight paranoia that radiates from me.

Here is why I kept focusing on the woman with the cleavage: because of the way she was looking around. People generally do look around a bit when they’re on a pleasant green verge beside sparkling water, but there are different ways of doing it. A person waiting on someone will look and then check their watch or phone. A person enjoying scenery will let their gaze wander, left, right, up, right again, maybe whip out that phone for a picture. But she wasn’t looking for a waiter – she had barely touched her wine. And she wasn’t looking for a toilet, she’d gone ten minutes earlier.

Ms Cleavage – probably not her real name – was looking around in a more methodical way. She would read her book for almost exactly two minutes, then scan left to right. All the way left, all the way right.

If I were a character in my own fiction, I might claim to have pulled a Sherlock and immediately deduced that she was one of the fugitive tribe in which I hold membership. But that would be stretching a point. I was looking at her because something about the way she scanned the world around her bothered me, and I have no better explanation than that. Just something off.

I didn’t really sense anything unusual was about to happen until I caught sight of the waiter, entering stage left.

Want to read more? Watch out for the second gripping instalment, coming soon!

A SUDDEN DEATH IN CYPRUS is our Oct 2018 UK/Feb 2019 US Editor’s Pick.

Find out more about this title here.

The Dickens connection: THE HANGING PSALM by Chris Nickson

hanging psalmLeeds, 1820. Simon Westow, a Leeds thief-taker, knows all about lost property. But when he is asked to find the kidnapped daughter of a successful Leeds businessman, Simon and his assistant, Jane, face a challenge like no other. Could the answers lie within the streets of Leeds and a figure from Simon’s own past?




This intriguing first in a new historical mystery series introduces us to thief-taker Simon Westow and his fascinating, deeply complex assistant, Jane. It also shows the Leeds of 1820 in all its dark industrial glory. Chris Nickson explains the parallels between his home city in 1820 and Dickens’ descriptions of London.

There are two Dickens references in the book. There’s a character named the Vulture who has some similarities to Fagin. There are also scenes in an old blacking factory. Mind you, Dickens worked in a blacking factory. Why? Because the Leeds of this book is as dark as the London of the poor that Dickens described. Worse, in some ways, because Leeds also had the factories, slowly taking over everything, yet not in complete control of industry yet. Dark, satanic mills indeed – and a similar time to Blake’s ‘Jerusalem.’

Leeds was dirty. Most places had no running water, and there was still nothing in the way of sewage; that would come a couple of decades later. One tiny area had gas street lighting, the rest was dark as pitch at night. It was two towns, industry during the day, crime and desperation at night.

THE HANGING PSALM is out now in the UK and is available from 1 January in the US. Read more here.

#BookExtract: JUST ONCE by Lori Handeland

just onceFrankie Sicari’s ex-husband, Charley Blackwell is back – and thinks they are still married. He is married – to Hannah. When medical tests reveal shocking results, Frankie reluctantly cares for Charley . . . but can she forgive him for the past? And how can Hannah cope with her husband’s demise and the knowledge that he never stopped loving Frankie?




This beautifully moving tale of love and loss tugged at our heartstrings from the very first chapter. Check out this book extract from the start of the story, where Frankie comes face-to-face with a very unexpected visitor she hasn’t seen for more than twenty years . . . her ex-husband, Charley.

The front door rattled. Frankie paused with her foot on the first step leading to the second floor, listening for a wind gust that would explain said rattling, but the late spring night was still.

The knob turned right-left, right-left.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

“Fancy? Open up.”

Frankie felt a chill so deep it made her dizzy. Only Charley had ever called her Fancy.

Though she’d just gotten off the phone with his wife, she still couldn’t believe he was here.

Tick-tock, tick-tock.

And trying the door as if he expected it to open.

“My key doesn’t work.”

“No shit.” She’d changed the locks the day after she’d seen him kissing her.

“I’m tired. I’ve been traveling forever.”

Frankie swirled her finger in the air – the universal sign for whoop-de-doo.

“I can see your shadow on the floor.”

Sure enough, she’d moved closer and the light from the TV outlined her silhouette on the reclaimed wood of the entry hall, her shadow clearly visible through the frosted glass windowpane to the side of the door.

Frankie stepped back. She didn’t want to let him in. She didn’t have to. This was her house and it was the middle of the night.

“I forgot to call again, didn’t I?”

The hair on her arms prickled. Something was very wrong. Charley hadn’t forgotten to call in twenty-four years. That’s what divorce meant. He no longer had to call; she no longer had to care when he didn’t.

“Come on, baby. Let me in.”

An odd sound escaped. It would have been a sob, if she hadn’t cried herself sick over this man long ago. It almost sounded like a laugh, but nothing was funny about this. Even though it must be a joke.

It just had to be.

“Fancy, come on.”

Charley sounded exactly as he had all those years ago whenever he’d come home late, forgotten to call, or left for some misbegotten corner of the earth without telling her.

And none of that had ever mattered. She’d known the man she was marrying; she’d understood his passion, his conviction, his need to record how he saw the world through a camera. She’d shared that passion, but where Frankie saw light and color, contrast and composition – the way the world came together – Charley saw how the world came apart.

They said it was his gift; Frankie’d always thought it more of a curse. Charley’s view of life had been pretty damn dark. She’d spent a lot of her time lightening him up. Dragging him into the sun after he’d spent weeks in the rain. And if it insisted on raining, then she’d dragged him out anyway and convinced him to dance.

Want to read more? JUST ONCE is out now in the UK and available from 1 January in the US. Click here for more details.

‘What if…’ The inspiration behind JUST ONCE by Lori Handeland


just onceFrankie Sicari’s ex-husband, Charley Blackwell is back – and thinks they are still married. He is married – to Hannah. When medical tests reveal shocking results, Frankie reluctantly cares for Charley . . . but can she forgive him for the past? And how can Hannah cope with her husband’s demise and the knowledge that he never stopped loving Frankie?




This beautifully moving tale of love and loss tugged at our heartstrings from the very first chapter. Lori Handeland reveals the very personal inspiration behind this emotional, heartfelt tale.

My late father, Buck Miller, who was a photojournalist on staff at the Milwaukee Journal for twenty years, inspired JUST ONCE. He always told the most interesting stories of his life as a child, in the military and as a photographer. I spent my childhood listening to them and loving them.

Near the end of his life from bone cancer, I sat by his bedside and he opened his eyes and cried out “Where’s your mother?” I could tell he didn’t remember that he and my mother had been divorced for decades, and he had been married to someone else for just as long. I thought, “What if someone didn’t remember twenty years of their life? What if . . .”

The idea percolated for several years, expanding, adding multiple settings and characters, but also making use of a lot of those stories Dad told before he left us. Several of the photographs described in JUST ONCE as taken by Charley were actually taken by my father over the years. Many of the settings — Milwaukee, Door County — are places I have lived or visited many times.

JUST ONCE is out now in the UK and available from 1 January in the US. Find out more here.

Behind the Book: THE HANGING PSALM by Chris Nickson

hanging psalm

Leeds, 1820. Simon Westow, a Leeds thief-taker, knows all about lost property. But when he is asked to find the kidnapped daughter of a successful Leeds businessman, Simon and his assistant, Jane, face a challenge like no other. Could the answers lie within the streets of Leeds and a figure from Simon’s own past?




This intriguing first in a new historical mystery series introduces us to thief-taker Simon Westow and his fascinating, deeply complex assistant, Jane. Chris Nickson explains where the burning anger at the heart of Simon’s character comes from, and how the world he inhabits isn’t entirely fictional . . . 

The chilling, brutal testimony given by Simon Westow to the commission at the start of the book is not fiction. The words are paraphrased, but a composite of testimony given by child workers to a similar commission in the 1830s. Including it was important for people to see just how children were treated, especially workhouse children, to illustrate the burning anger at the heart of Simon.

When I first read the testimony, it shocked me, it made me angry that this could have gone on. But this was a period when children worked for twelve hours at a time in the complete blackness of the mines, pulling carts, crawling on their hands and knees. There was very little compassion, yet the tide was on the cusp of changing. That these questions could be asked shows a glimmer of hope.

The words offer a glimpse into the world that formed Simon Westow. I wanted them to make people stop, to feel the same anger he does every day of his life. His circumstances might have improved, but he can never forget. In just over two pages, it gives an electric insight into the book’s main character, so it effectively serves two purposes. You know he’s determined, you know he’s strong, and you know he has a fiery sense of justice, of right and wrong. But the time the story really starts, you know who he is and you’re on his side.

THE HANGING PSALM is out 28 September in the UK and 1 January in the US. Find out more here.

Did You Know? A MISSED MURDER by Michael Jecks

Missed Murder

Having been ordered to kill a man, former cutpurse turned paid assassin Jack Blackjack determines to save him instead. But Jack defies his spymaster at his peril … and even the best-laid plans can sometimes go awry. When it appears that Jack has killed the wrong man, he reluctantly finds himself drawn into affairs of state.




Disobeying the orders of your spymaster is never a good idea, as Jack Blackjack is about to find out in this lively and thoroughly absorbing Tudor mystery. But did you know that there was more to Mary Tudor’s pregnancy than first thought? Michael Jecks explains . . .

Mary Tudor was deeply devout, and determined to bring England back under the wing of the Catholic faith. She was infuriated by her half-sister Elizabeth’s adherence to the new English Church, but when she managed to marry Philip she seems to have felt she had at last got one over Elizabeth, and when she discovered that she was pregnant, her joy was unbounded. Elizabeth had been born to Anne Boleyn, and on her birth Mary had been declared illegitimate and told to give Elizabeth her jewels. There was a lot of bad feeling between the two. Now Mary felt she had everything. Her status was renewed, she was Queen, married, and pregnant, whereas her half sister was no longer a princess and would never inherit the throne. Any child of Mary’s would have a better claim than Elizabeth.

But the pregnancy went horribly wrong. Mary swelled as should be expected, but on the due date, although there was an announcement that she had given birth to a son, the jubilation was soon curtailed when it was learned that the announcement was wrong. There was no child – yet. And as the weeks dragged on, it became obvious that there would be none. Although there was no proclamation to say so, there was no news of a child, and the matter was allowed to drop.

Sadly the chances of another baby were slim in the extreme. Philip had battles to fight, and shortly after the non-birth, he left England. Mary was devastated, and paranoia seems to have set in. But the interesting question is, was there a baby at all, or was it all her imagination?

She had been examined by court physicians, and the general consensus was that she was pregnant. But at the same time we now know that the midwives involved were doubtful. They said that apart from the swelling of her belly, there were no other symptoms of pregnancy. One midwife confided that she thought the doctors were either stupid, or too scared to suggest that Mary had a phantom pregnancy.

The question which has intrigued many people is, what was the cause of this (and other) phantom pregnancies, and what caused her death? There was an epidemic of influenza when she died, so some ascribed her death to that, but others have suggested that her pregnancies could have been caused by a uterine cancer, or perhaps a stomach cancer of some sort. We will probably never know.

A MISSED MURDER is out now in the UK and is available from 1 December in the US. Read more here.

The story behind the story: WHEEL OF FIRE by Hilary Bonner

Wheel of Fire1

When Sir John Fairbrother, head of one of the world’s biggest private banks, burns to death, in a catastrophic fire at his Somerset home, DI Vogel finds himself dealing with a complex and mystifying sequence of events. If arson was involved, as Vogel believes, the obvious suspect is Sir John’s chauffeur, George Grey,  but is it as simple as that?




Two tragic, mysterious deaths in a rich man’s world . . . Hilary Bonner discusses the extraordinary real-life story that inspired her to write the new DI  Vogel mystery, WHEEL OF FIRE.  

My latest novel, WHEEL OF FIRE, brings a tale of international financial intrigue, culminating in arson and violent death, to the rolling green hills of the English countryside.

The book is inspired by the tragically curious real-life story of Edmond Safra, one of the richest men in the world, who in 1999 choked to death along with his nurse in a fire at his Monaco penthouse. For some time after the fire broke out he could have opened the door to the specially fortified bathroom in which the two bodies were found, and escaped to safety. He did not. And it is believed that when the nurse tried to flee he fought her into submission.

Another nurse in Safra’s employ, American Ted Maher, was subsequently charged with arson and intent to harm.

Maher, who suffered extensive injuries on the night of the fire, at first claimed he had been attacked by armed intruders. Police and emergency services took more than two hours to reach Safra’s hideout – primarily because of fears that gunmen might be inside the penthouse.

However Maher later admitted that he had stabbed himself, using his medical skills to produce wounds which looked serious but were not life-threatening.

He also admitted starting the fire, allegedly in a waste paper bin beneath a smoke detector, so that he could gain favour with his wealthy employer by rescuing him.

In court his American lawyer, Michael Griffith, argued that Maher had hatched a ‘stupid’ plan which went horribly wrong, but had no intent to harm. Griffith, famous for defending fellow countrymen who get into trouble abroad, also argued that Safra had violently prevented the nurse from escaping because he was convinced that there were hitmen waiting outside to get him. And therefore it was Safra, a Parkinson’s sufferer known to be paranoid about his safety, who was guilty of killing her.

Griffith accused the Monaco authorities of ‘a monstrous cover-up’. Nonetheless Maher was found guilty and jailed for ten years.

Now free and back home in America, the former nurse continues to protest his innocence of any intent to kill. And the whole affair remains shrouded in mystery.

Lebanese-born Safra’s business empire was worth between £1.5 and £2.8 billion at the time of his death. His speciality was private banking for the massively wealthy, and it was said that he knew ‘all the secrets of the financial planet’.

Needless to say, conspiracy theories remain rife. In Monaco they believe Safra may have been the victim of all manner of covert organisations, ranging from the Russian Mafia to a Palestinian hit squad.

I first became intrigued by the Safra affair when Ted Maher was brought to trial in Monaco in 2002. Looking for an idea for a new David Vogel mystery last year, I as usual delved into the drawer in my office where I stuff newspaper and magazine cuttings and scribbled notes which I think might one day form the germ of a novel. A now yellowing page from The Sunday Times jumped out at me.

I have always believed that ideas are not really a problem for novelists. All you have to do is read the papers, watch the TV news, and, indeed (sorry about this) watch your neighbours, friends, and family.

The plots are all there. It’s just making them work that can be tricky.

Indeed, the story of how Edmond Safra met his death and the subsequent courtroom drama leading to the conviction of Ted Maher is so bizarre that to make a believable fictional version of it was extremely challenging. And, of course, my major characters and the shocking events which engulf them are entirely fictional.

I created Sir John Fairbrother, a wealthy retired banker from a grand old Somerset family, who dies along with his nurse in a catastrophic fire at his manor house home in the Blackdown Hills, not far from where I live.

Employees of Fairbrother and family members all become suspects, along with certain apparently mysterious outside agencies.

DI Vogel leads the police investigation. Determined that he will get to the bottom of it all and ultimately reveal the truth, he uncovers a tangled web of intrigue which exceeds anything he at first imagined.

But surely nothing could ever exceed the extraordinary real-life story which inspired me to write WHEEL OF FIRE .

WHEEL OF FIRE is available from 28 September in the UK and 1 January 2019 in the US. Read more here.




Behind the Book: MR CAMPION’S WAR by Mike Ripley

campion's war

It’s Albert Campion’s seventieth birthday, and he has decided to enthral his guests at the Dorchester Hotel with his account of his wartime experiences in Vichy France more than twenty-five years before. But in doing so he unveils a series of extraordinary events, the repercussions of which put one of his guests in deadly danger . . .




How did lunch with one of his literary heroes inspire the plot for Mike Ripley’s new Albert Campion mystery, MR CAMPION’S WAR? Find out below!

They say you should never meet your heroes, but it isn’t true. As a teenager I devoured the early spy novels of Len Deighton with their wise-cracking hero ‘Harry Palmer’ (played by Michael Caine in the films). One of my proudest moments at university was having an economic history essay returned with a comment from my tutor saying: ‘Stop trying to write like Len Deighton!’

Some thirty years later I got to meet Len and found him a charming and generous man and, I like to think, we became friends, having lunch together whenever he was in London.  At one such lunch in 2014 the conversation ranged, as usual, across a wide variety of subjects including our shared interest in the history of World War II, and Len mentioned that he had come across a possible plot concerning Vichy France, North Africa and an outrageous ‘money laundering’ scheme.

In 2017, after four novels continuing the adventures of Margery Allingham’s Golden Age sleuth Albert Campion – set in the late 1960s with Campion approaching his seventieth birthday – I decided that in the next instalment, at his seventieth birthday party, Campion would finally reveal part of what he had done during the war.

In the original Campion novels, Margery Allingham had glossed over her hero’s war service, simply hinting that he had been ‘away’ on secret work, so secret he himself did not know what it was! I remembered that lunch with Len Deighton and thought this could give me an excellent plot, especially as in her 1941 novel Traitor’s Purse, Margery had used a background of economic warfare by the Nazis against the English currency – something she had thought up as fiction, but which turned out to be true, as revealed after the war!

I contacted Len and asked his permission to borrow his plot idea and he generously allowed me to, though I am sure he would have made a better job of it.

So I have been twice lucky in that I have met one of my thriller-writer heroes and now have the privilege of writing the continuation stories of one of my fictional heroes, Albert Campion.

MR CAMPION’S WAR is available now in UK and from 1 December in the US. Find out more here.