by Phil Lecomber~~~~~~~~~~~~~
LONDON, 1932 … a city held tight in the grip of the Great Depression. GEORGE HARLEY’S London. The West End rotten with petty crime and prostitution; anarchists blowing up trams; fascists marching on the East End.
And then, one smoggy night …
The cruel stripe of a cutthroat razor … three boys dead in their beds … and a masked killer mysteriously vanishing across the smoky rooftops of Fitzrovia.
Before long the cockney detective is drawn into a dark world of murder and intrigue, as he uncovers a conspiracy that threatens the very security of the British nation.
God save the King! eh, George?
THE 1930s … thinking debutantes, Bright Young Things and P. G. Wodehouse? Think again—more like fascists, psychopaths, and kings of the underworld. GEORGE HARLEY’S London is a city of crime and corruption … of murder most foul, and smiling, damned villains.
In part an homage to Grahame Greene’s Brighton Rock, and to the writings of Gerald Kersh, James Curtis, Patrick Hamilton, Norman Collins and the other chroniclers of London lowlife in the 1930s, Mask of the Verdoy also tips its hat to the heyday of the British crime thriller—but unlike the quaint sleepy villages and sprawling country estates of Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot, George Harley operates in the spielers, clip-joints and all-night cafés that pimple the seedy underbelly of a city struggling under the austerity of the Great Slump.
With Mussolini’s dictatorship already into its seventh year in Italy, and with a certain Herr Hitler standing for presidential elections in Germany, 1932 sees the rise in the UK of the British Brotherhood of Fascists, led by the charismatic Sir Pelham Saint Clair. This Blackshirt baronet is everything that Harley despises and the chippy cockney soon has the suave aristocrat on his blacklist.
But not at the very top. Pride of place is already taken by his arch enemy, Osbert Morkens—the serial killer responsible for the murder and decapitation of Harley’s fiancée, Cynthia … And, of course—they never did find her head.
Mask of the Verdoy is the first in the period crime thriller series, the George Harley Mysteries.
STILL CLUTCHING THE distraught Gladys close to him the Italian moved forwards and fired up at the cage, the round ricocheting off the bars, briefly illuminating the gloom with a spray of sparks. Harley hunkered down, swore, and redoubled his efforts, finally forcing the catch and dropping through the small opening just as another bullet passed inches from his head.
The cage slewed as he dropped inside, the box of dynamite shifting a little to the left.
Now that his eyes had adjusted to the darkness he could quite plainly make out the length of two-core cable running through a drilled hole in the side of the box of explosives and out through the cage, snaking away into the gloom. He turned to peer through the bars—and was dismayed to see the second hand of the oversized clock ticking past the three minute mark.
He quickly lay down and started to crawl towards the bomb, the cage listing dangerously to and fro.
Girardi now fired again; this time the bullet made it through the bars to clatter terrifyingly around the inside of the cage.
‘Smith! You still there?’ shouted Harley, feeling in his jacket for his penknife.
‘You betcha, guv!’ came a voice from the gloom.
‘Shine a spotlight down there on that cowson, would yer? Try and dazzle him for me. Make it sharpish, now! We’ve only got seconds before this bloody thing goes up.
AUTHOR Bio and Links:Phil Lecomber was born in 1965 in Slade Green, on the outskirts of South East London—just a few hundred yards from the muddy swirl of the Thames.
Most of his working life has been spent in and around the capital in a variety of occupations. He has worked as a musician in the city’s clubs, pubs and dives; as a steel-fixer helping to build the towering edifices of the square mile (and also working on some of the city’s iconic landmarks, such as Tower Bridge); as a designer of stained-glass windows; and—for the last quarter of a century—as the director of a small company in Mayfair specializing in the electronic security of some of the world’s finest works of art.
All of which, of course, has provided wonderful material for a novelist’s inspiration.
Always an avid reader, a chance encounter as a teenager with a Gerald Kersh short story led to a fascination with the ‘Morbid Age’— the years between the wars. The world that Phil has created for the George Harley Mysteries is the result of the consumption and distillation of myriad contemporary novels, films, historical accounts, biographies and slang dictionaries of the 1930s—with a nod here and there to some of the real-life colourful characters that he’s had the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with over the years.
So, the scene is now set … enter George Harley, stage left …
Phil lives in the beautiful West Country city of Bath with his wife, Susie. They have two sons, Jack and Ned.
- http://www.bookdepository.com/Mask-Verdoy-Phil-Lecomber/9780993047206Coffee Books & Art Author Review
Did you do any kind of research to determine the details of your characters’ lives / lifestyles?
Indeed! I’ve had a fascination with the 1930s for quite a while now, and have spent the last four or five years researching for the book series. This research is on-going and includes reading a lot of contemporary fiction of the era (there’s a full bibliography at the back of the novel, but I’m particularly fond of the writings of Patrick Hamilton, Gerald Kersh and Graham Greene); referring to historical accounts; watching British movies from the 30s; and searching out old newsreels on the internet.
I’ve paid particular attention to researching the authentic slang and idioms of London in the 1930s; I’m sure most of your readers will have heard of the famous ‘Cockney Rhyming slang’, but there’s also thieves’ cant, Polari, Yiddish, back slang and street argot in the book (don’t worry though – I’ve included a glossary). Consequently I’ve now got a great little collection of old slang dictionaries, with titles such as “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” and “A Dictionary of the Underworld”. It’s interesting to see how some of these old phrases are still with us today.
The best book/s you ever read?
Blimey! That’s a tough one! I guess my answer to that would probably change from year to year (it’s as difficult as naming your ten favourite albums – another tough question that I was asked recently). I don’t know whether I could tell you the best books that I’ve ever read, but I can probably have a stab at the ones that have had most effect on me. The first of these would have to be Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (indeed, I still re-read this every year on the run-up to Christmas). Of course, as a Londoner, I hold Mr. Dickens very close to my heart; his language, those characters, his humour (apart from “A Tale of Two Cities” that is, which is strangely devoid of Charlie boy’s normal witty asides) – every title by the master is a lesson in characterization and story-telling. But it’s this “ghostly little book” (as the man himself described it) that continues to captivate. And I’m convinced its descriptions of Victorian Christmas celebrations have played more than their fair share in defining how we celebrate the festival in the 21st Century. Every time I read it I’m an eight-year-old kid again.
Following ‘A Christmas Carol’ – in no particular order would be:
… actually, there’s too many to mention; it’s like trying to pick your favourite child (and yes boys, if you’re reading this you know which one I mean!). And, of course – I haven’t even started on the short stories yet!
- “Any Human Heart” – William Boyd
- “The Cement Garden” – Ian McEwan
- “The Magic Toyshop” – Angela Carter (well, anything by her actually)
- “Brighton Rock” – Graham Greene
- “Night and the City” – Gerald Kersh
- “Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky” – Patrick Hamilton
- “Lowlife” – Alexander Baron
- “Ridley Walker” – Russell Hoban
- “Dandelion Wine” – Ray Bradbury
- “Moments of Reprieve” – Primo Levi
Where did you grow up?
I was born at home in Slade Green, on the outskirts of South East London—just a few hundred yards from the muddy swirl of the Thames. Slade Green is a strange place – a little Dickensian in a way. When I was a kid In the 70s the river at this stretch was lined with scrap yards and factories, but you also had the sense that it was the start of the opening out of the Thames estuary, with its mud flats and marshes (very “Great Expectations”!). It was apparently this stretch of the river that Oscar Wilde’s friends chose to have a small boat lying in wait for him to escape over to France in if he was found guilty at his trial for gross indecency (he should have taken them up on the offer, as the two years’ hard labour broke him and led to his early death).
Having been born on its outskirts, from an early age I was drawn in towards the centre of our capital, caught in its gravitational pull, so to speak. Indeed, most of my working life has been spent in and around London in a variety of occupations. I’ve worked as a musician in the city’s clubs, pubs and dives; as a steel-fixer (helping to build the towering edifices of the square mile and also working on some of the city’s iconic landmarks, such as Tower Bridge and the Telecom Tower); as a designer of stained-glass windows; and—for the last quarter of a century—as the director of a small company in Mayfair specializing in the electronic security of some of the world’s finest works of art.
So with this association it was perhaps no surprise that the book series was going to be set in “The Smoke”. As Samuel Johnson said: ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.’
Did any real-life political incidents or manoeuvring make it into the book?
Yes. This first story in the George Harley Mysteries sees him pitched against the sinister Sir Pelham Saint Clair and his British Brotherhood of Fascists, based loosely on the real-life Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the infamous British Blackshirts (the British Union of Fascists) who came to prominence in the 1930s – taking his lead from Mussolini’s Fascist Party in Italy. Mosley was part of the nobility, a baronet and a distant relative to the Queen; he’d been an MP for both the Tory and Labour parties, and at one time was tipped as a future Prime Minister. I was keen to use this theme to drag into the light a dark period of British history that I feel has been conveniently pushed to the back of the closet in the collective memory.
How did you get into writing?
I think it probably came as a natural progression of my song-writing; I spent a lot of my teenage years and early twenties in bands, both performing live and writing and recording. My most accomplished songs always seemed to have a narrative lyric to them. But when I think about it I guess I was always trying to tell a story; even as a kid I would revel in those long ‘shaggy dog story’ kind of jokes, collecting them and tweaking them, adding voices and more characters ...
drawing them out into meandering yarns. People don’t seem to tell those sorts of jokes any more; they were once the mainstay of the British pub.
What do you consider your best accomplishment?
Well, there’s my twenty-five years of marriage to my wonderful wife Susie, and the production of my two sons, Jack & Ned, now both impressive young men … (I’ve got to say that or they’ll all kill me!) ...
Seriously, speaking creatively, I think the conception of George Harley, his world, and the characters that surround him, is the thing that I’m probably most proud of. I think with George (and it was years before he came along) I’ve definitely found my ‘voice’ – when telling his stories I’m not trying to write like anyone else; I think for me that’s been a major breakthrough.
What is your favorite quote?
“If you ain't got socks you can't pull 'em up, can you?” – from the film adaptation of Gerald Kersh’s novel ‘Night and the City’.
It sums up cockney wit for me – that no-nonsense street philosophy; it’s all very well having grand intentions, but if you haven’t got the wherewithal they’ll never come to fruition. Or, in the context of the film, it simply means –
“I can’t lend you any dough, ‘coz I ain’t got none!”Either that or this judgement of the tedium of everyday life from a pre-zipper era 18th Century suicide note :
“All this buttoning and unbuttoning!”Do you think that the cover plays an important part in the buying process?
Without doubt—especially when you’re talking about selling books online. Your book is competing with hundreds of other visual stimuli as the potential buyer browses those pages; you’ve got to have a stunning cover image to grab their attention long enough to make them stop and be intrigued enough to click and find out more. I don’t understand how authors can go through the extremely demanding process of writing a novel and then scupper the chances of its success by tacking on a lack-lustre cover.
For ‘Mask of the Verdoy’ I engaged the services of a professional book cover design team. I saw the cover as an opportunity to set the atmosphere of the book even before anyone started to read a sample, and spent a long time putting together ‘mood-boards’ and collections of covers from contemporary best-sellers of the same genre. We also decided on a style of title graphics that will continue across the series, adding to the ‘branding’ of the novels. I’ve even invested in having the second book’s cover designed so that it can be displayed on the website as ‘coming soon’. You’ve got to have a great book to sell, that goes without saying, but if your cover’s not up to scratch the chances are very few people will click on that button to find out about it.
How did you come up with the title? Names?
I wanted the book to have the nostalgic appeal of those old classics like “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and “The Maltese Falcon”; although these stories are very well known now, presumably when they were first released people were intrigued as to what the titles referred to. And, no, I’m not going to tell you what the “Verdoy” is – you’ll have to read the novel!
As far as the main character’s name, well, I wanted a plain, no fancies, English name. George is the name of our patron saint in England, and Harley is an English name that dates back to before the Norman invasion (1066). It means “a forest clearing with lots of rabbits or hares”.
I had fun with some of the other characters’ nicknames:
- Benny ‘Whelks’ – named for his penchant for pickled seafood (you might know whelks in America as “scungilli”; pickled shellfish has been a favourite of Londoners for centuries owing to its history as an international port).
- Mori ‘the hat’ Adler – a mobster with a stake in every smash ‘n’ grab, clip-joint, bottle-party and spieler in the West End
- Solly ‘Smokey’ Rosen – Harley’s childhood friend and an ex-middleweight champion (AKA “The Yiddish Thunderbolt”).
- ‘Iron’ Billy Boyd – a former ex-prize-fighter and henchman to one of the villains of the piece.
- There are many others.
Whereas the characters in the novel from the upper classes have typically aristocratic names from the era:
- Sir Pelham Devereux Saint Clair (pronounced ‘Sinclair’)
- General Sir Frederick Wilberforce Swale
- Lady Euphemia Daubeney (‘Effie’) and her cousin Augusta (‘Gussy’)
- Viscount Chantry
I must admit, I had great fun with the names. A list of the principal characters can be found on the website, under the ‘more’ button on the book page.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your books?
I think the most surprising thing is the way that characters take on a life of their own; if you get it right it’s almost as if you’re not putting the words in their mouths, but simply placing them in a certain situation and watching them react. I know that may sound a little pretentious but it definitely happened for me with this bunch of characters. It’s a real shame when you finally finish the manuscript, because you know it’s going to be a while before you’re in their company again. So … I guess I’d better get on with the next one then, eh?
NTN: Phil Lecomber interviewed
By DavidPrestidge ⋅ November 5, 2014
“The dramatic finale is magnificently melodramatic, and ends the book – an excellent debut – in fine style.” That was our verdict when we recently reviewed Mask of the Verdoy by new crime author Phil Lecomber. Now based in the West Country city of Bath, he grew up in London and worked for 25 years in the art security business. We asked Phil to talk about his arrival on the crime fiction scene…
So, can you give us an introduction to your 1930s detective George Harley?
Harley is a veteran of WWI, where he served in a trench-raiding squad. But his experiences in the war and a subsequent ill-fated career in the Secret Intelligence Service have politicised our man to the point where he’s as eager for change as the extremists campaigning in the East End. He now has a serious chip on his shoulder, and welcomes any opportunity to rail against the entrenched British class system. He also has a boyish enthusiasm for all things modern and is a believer in the liberating power of knowledge. He is an avid fan of the new Jazz music and a collector of the latest technology – including Mabel, his Norton CS1 motorbike with sidecar, and a portable Leica 35mm camera.
One of the most defining experiences of Harley’s life was the brutal murder and decapitation of his fiancée Cynthia at the hands of the serial killer Osbert Morkens, an event that plunged him into a dark period of drink and drugs, haunted by daily nightmares of the trenches and the discovery of Cynthia’s headless corpse.
Mask of the Verdoy is a long and very intense first novel. What was its genesis? Have a few prototype novels ended up in the waste bin?
No, there aren’t any prototypes in the bin. I’d written a couple of unpublished novels, but still hadn’t found my voice. I’d fully plotted Mask of the Verdoy, and had just begun on the first draft when a chance meeting on a train led me to rethink the story as a possible TV serial streamed on the internet, rendered in motion-capture-assisted animation. I know - crazy! After a year of working on the project it became obvious that it wasn’t going to happen. I returned to the novel format to discover that my writing style had been coloured by the process of creating the screenplays for the episodes – an improvement in my opinion. That’s why the story is mainly driven by the dialogue.
What inspired your vision of 1930s London?
During the early 1980s I was employed as a steel fixer, installing safety equipment on some of the city’s tallest buildings and iconic landmarks. Seeing London from above made it easier to spot the juxtaposition of old and new: a muddle of blackened Victorian chimneys nestling in the hollows between office blocks; the towering edifices of the Square Mile following the meandering contours of a medieval street plan. I found this sense of the barely concealed past incredibly alluring. I remember working on the redevelopment of the old warehouses flanking the Thames, the way the timbered flooring still bore the perfume of the spices once stored there over the previous centuries. I’m sure it was this sense of a tangible connection to the past that steered me towards recreating London in the 1930s for the George Harley mysteries.
The novel is very London-centric. Do you worry that international readers might not get the atmosphere and references?
I understand there’s a gamble there – especially with the use of slang – but I’d like to think that once you’re past chapter two the plot will have caught you in its grasp, and there’ll be no turning back. Personally I love books that introduce me to an exotic world, for example Krajewski’s Eberhard Mock stories, or Akunkin’s Erast Fandorin books. And, isn’t every book set in a sufficiently distant past full of references that we may need help with? The important thing is that these references don’t get in the way of the story. I’d like to think the reader could plough through the novel without looking up one slang term in the glossary, or without Googling one historical reference.
Which writers have influenced you, and are there any authors who you read for sheer pleasure?
For the atmosphere of 1930s London I’ve drawn great inspiration from the likes of Patrick Hamilton, Norman Collins, Gerald Kersh, James Curtis and Robert Westerby. Of course, it’s easy for your reading to become overtaken by research but I’m still an avid reader for pleasure. Some particular favourite authors of mine are: Angela Carter, Graham Greene, Michael Chabon, Michel Tournier, Ray Bradbury, Alexander Baron… it’s difficult to know where to stop with such a list. In the crime fiction genre I don’t think you can beat Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books. What a unique creation Tom Ripley is – a man almost completely devoid of morals, a liar, murderer, conman, and yet we’re rooting for him all the way.
Harley is old enough to have fought in the Great War, and young enough to be available to serve in WWII. What next? Is he going back or forward in time?
Oh, definitely forward. The second book in the series, The Grimaldi Vaults, takes us into 1933. There’s a Weimar cabaret star, child abduction, a dismembered body in a suitcase, occult rituals, Nazis and… scary clowns!
The death of George’s fiancée Cynthia is pretty dramatic. Will we get to know the full story?
We’ve only so far been teased a little with the serial killer Osbert Morkens, the psychopathic Professor of Ancient History responsible for Cynthia’s demise. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Harley’s arch-enemy makes an appearance in the second book. After all, escaping from a padded cell in Broadmoor should be a cinch for an evil genius, right?
Like Sherlock Holmes, Harley resorts to stimulants when his brain flags. What will happen when he has exhausted the contents of the little wooden box on his bookshelf?
Well, Harley can always rely on his old contact Limehouse Lil for his opium, or pen yen. Lil is Cynthia’s sister and, along with her Jujitsu-practising daughters, makes an appearance in the second book. As for the Dreambugs, who knows exactly where they were sourced from? The only way Harley could replenish his stash of these hallucinogenic crustaceans is if his Uncle Blake made a miraculous return. But seeing as the old Victorian adventurer was lost in a mudslide all those years ago in darkest Peru that’s not very likely to happen, is it?
Read our review of Mask of the Verdoy here.
THE AUTHOR WILL BE GIVING AWAY:
Phil will be awarding a $40 Amazon GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour,
and a $50 Amazon GC to a randomly drawn host.
a Rafflecopter giveaway