Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. London is one of the most interesting and storied cities in the world, rich with history and modern-day diversity and colour. It’s difficult to capture London in just one novel because of that diversity, but some authors truly give the reader a sense of today’s London. Today let’s take a closer look at one of them. Let’s turn the spotlight on James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain.
The real action in the novel begins in the home of Agatha Mills, who lives with her husband Henry on Great Russell Street near the British Museum. One night, she’s bludgeoned to death. Inspector John Carlyle from Charing Cross Station and his assistant Joe Szyskowski are called to the scene and begin the investigation. The first suspect is Henry Mills. He claims that he was sleeping at the time of the murder and didn’t hear anything because he wears earplugs. He also claims he had no motive to murder his wife. His own alibi is very thin and when Carlyle asks him who did kill his wife, Henry Mills’ explanation is even more difficult to believe. He says that Agatha Mills had enemies who were out to get her. No-one believes Mills and he’s promptly arrested.
There is some evidence that Henry Mills is innocent though, and although that evidence is quite meagre, it stays in Carlyle’s mind. And then, he gets a clue from an extremely unexpected source. On the night of the murder, local tramp and drunk Walter Poonoosamy, nicknamed Dog, was actually at the building where Henry and Agatha Mills live. When Carlyle encounters him and finds out what that clue is, he realises that Henry Mills could be right. So he begins to ask questions and probe a little more deeply into the matter. The more he learns about Agatha Mills’ possible enemies, the more he realises that this is both a delicate and dangerous matter involving international relations and diplomacy. If he’s going to bring the killer to justice, he’s going to have to move carefully.
In the meantime, Carlyle also has another case to investigate, this one less formally. One of Carlyle’s acquaintances is Amelia Jacobs, a former prostitute who now works as a maid for Sam Laidlaw, who’s also in “the business.” Jacobs is worried because of Michael Hagger, a local gangster who is also the father of Laidlaw’s son Jake. She asks Carlyle to contact Hagger and let him he’s under surveillance and needs to stay away from Laidlaw and their son. Carlyle agrees, but by the time he really gets down to looking for Hagger, Hagger has already snatched Jake and the two have disappeared. Now he’s going to have to sift through part of London’s underworld to catch Hagger and retrieve Jake before it’s too late.
One of the clearest elements in this novel is its setting. Carlyle travels through several parts of London as he tries to solve the mystery of Agatha Mills’ murder and two other subsequent murders. We travel from Russell Square to the Chilean Embassy to No. 10 Downing Street and other parts of the city too. At the same time, as Carlyle uses his contacts to try to find the missing Jake Laidlaw, we see the not-so-lovely side of London – the side tourists don’t generally see. Sam Laidlaw, for instance, lives on Mercer Street near Seven Dials – not a particularly scenic part of the city. And Michael Hagger doesn’t exactly frequent the best parts of the city. All in all we see London in all of its complexity, vivid colour and life. It’s extremely difficult to describe London in just a short space and Craig doesn’t try. Rather, we get snapshots of different sides of the city.
The mystery itself is engaging. It’s not long before we know who is behind the murders; in fact the reader knows more than Carlyle knows at first. But as the story unfolds, the pace of the story is kept up by the “cat and mouse” game between the killer and Carlyle. There’s real tension and suspense, too, as Carlyle tries to negotiate the forest of officialdom and diplomacy to get to the truth while at the same time searching for Jake Laidlaw.
In that sense – the pace and action in the story – you could call this novel a thriller. But that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. There’s a strong element of police procedural in the story as well. Readers follow along as Carlyle and Szyskowsk make sense of interviews, evidence, forensic reports and so on. We also get a look at police bureaucracy as Carlyle deals with his boss Commander Carole Simpson, who has her own problems. She’s facing budget issues, “image” issues and some wrenching personal problems.
Carole Simpson is one of several interesting characters who also add an important element to this novel. Another is Dominic Silver. Silver and Carlyle went to school together and have remained friends. In fact, Silver was actually a cop on the Metropolitan Police at one time, but wasn’t happy with the life. Now he’s a successful drug dealer. He’s not a stereotypical nasty brainless thug, though. He’s got, as Craig tells us,
“…a style that gleaned a little goodwill from even the most hard-nosed copper.”
He and Carlyle still stay in contact and help one another. In this case, Craig asks Silver for help finding Jake Laidlaw and in the end, Silver comes through and helps Carlyle get to the truth about the boy.
Carlyle himself is an interesting character as well. Dogged and determined, he’s also bright and savvy. He’s happily married and loves his wife Helen and daughter Alice very much. A word is in order too about the Carlyle family. Craig depicts them as a normal, imperfect but not wretched or dysfunctional family. That also is an important element in the novel.
There’s also a sense of humour running through the novel. For example, one of the cases that Carlyle has to deal with is the case of a bus driver who is deeply offended by an ad on the side of the bus he is assigned to drive. He protests by parking his bus – filled at the time with passengers – in the middle of a street, seriously impeding traffic and upsetting everyone. It is a tense scene but it’s darkly funny, too.
Despite the humour, this isn’t a bright, happy novel where everything works out. We do find out the truth about the murders, for instance, but that doesn’t make for what you’d call a happy ending. In the sense of finding out the answers to the mysteries, the reader is satisfied. But readers who prefer mysteries where everyone gets closure and things are made right again will be disappointed. This is a “messier” ending than that. But it is a very authentic and believable ending.
A mix of thriller and police procedural with a dose of interesting characters, Never Apologise, Never Explain is a uniquely London story. It’s got a dose of grit, some dark humour and features a hard-working cop who probably wouldn’t be really happy anywhere else. But what’s your view? Have you read Never Apologise, Never Explain? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 28 May/Tuesday 22 May – The Ice Princess – Camilla Läckerg
Monday 4 June/ Tuesday 5 June – The Legal Limit – Martin Clark
Monday 11 June/Tuesday 12 June – A Cotswold Killing – Rebecca Tope