Once a Biker by Peter Turnbull

June 5, 2008 at 10:48 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Once a Biker is the sixteenth entry in Peter Turnbull’s series of procedurals featuring Chief Inspector George Hennessey and Detective Sergeant Somerled Yellich. This outing begins with a cold case: a disappearance from years past that turns out to have been a murder.

The novel opens with 45-year old Tony Wells unburdening himself to social worker Gillian Stoneman. Wells used to run with a motorcycle gang called the Dungeon Masters. It has been two decades since the gang’s leader ordered the murder of one of its members, Terry North, and his girlfriend. The girlfriend’s body had been found shortly after the crime was committed; not so with Terry North. Now, dying of cancer, Tony Wells feels the need to reveal a secret: where Terry North is concerned, he quite literally knows where the body is buried. A subsequent search in a place called Foxfoot Wood bears out Wells’s revelation.

Hennessey and Yellich have been led to the victim but not to the perpetrator(s). And thus begins an investigation that will take them, along with junior officers Thompson Ventnor and Reginald Webster, deep into the history and the heart of the Dungeon Masters.

Now, if you had told me that I would be fascinated to learn the mores and folkways of a motorcycle gang, I would have laughed in a suitably deprecating manner. But it is these revelations, rather than the actual homicide investigation, that kept me riveted to Once A Biker. Turnbull goes deeper than the surface bravado – and the rather shocking degradation of female members – to explore the odd combination of hubris, vulnerability, and unwritten yet binding rules that accounts for the tight cohesion of a gang like the Dungeon Masters.

Peter Turnbull’s novels have some unique features that I always enjoy. For instance, chapter headings are reminiscent of Victorian novels – or even 18th century novels like those of Henry Fielding. Here’s the heading for Chapter Three: “Tuesday ,18 June, 12.15 hours – Wednesday, 19 June, 01.35 hours in which a bedroom yields dark secrets and both Ventnor and Webster are at home to the gentle reader.” Later, in Chapter Five “…useful information is obtained from an apostate and George Hennessey is at home to the gracious reader.” In chapters such as these, we are afforded a tantalizing glimpse into the private lives of series regulars. Surprises often lurk there.

For a novel about a motorcycle gang, Once a Biker contains some curiously formal, almost antiquated dialog. The diction in these passages adds poignancy to a situation which often involves the delivery of bad news. Here, Hennessey and Yellich are talking to Garry Wells, Tony’s embittered father. Hennessey assures him that for several years prior to his death, Tony had been living as a law-abiding citizen. Garry responds:

“Well, thank you for saying that but…well…he was a very selfish person. He wanted everything and he wanted it yesterday. He was our son, he died young in life of a cruel illness, but he was no saint. But your kind words are welcome, sir. Thank you.

This series benefits greatly from its setting in the ancient northern city of York. We accompany Hennessey as he walks along the medieval walls – something I myself was thrilled to do three years ago. At one point, the Chief Inspector gazes up in wonder at York’s incredible Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. ( I can’t imagine living in such close proximity to this sublime edifice. I think I would feel blessed every minute of my life! )


Peter Turnbull treads lightly – very lightly – on the internet. From the extemely brief biography on Tangled Web UK, I learned that Turnbull was a social worker for some years in Glasgow before returning to his native Yorkshire. From the Gale Database Literature Resource Center we learn, among other things, that this author was born in 1950 and that his father was an engineer and his mother, a nurse. Turnbull earned degrees at various institutions of higher learning in England and Wales. He has worked as a steelworker and a crematorium assistant in Sheffield and in London; in addition, he has been a social worker in Brooklyn, New York. ( I must admit that last bit really made me want to know more about him!)

There’s a sad little twist at the end of Once a Biker that caught me completely by surprise. I’ll say no more about it at present…

In a quote cited in Literature Resource Center, Emily Melton of Booklist Magazine observes that “This low-key Scottish author writes refreshingly intelligent books that are an absorbing blend of gritty murder mystery, human-interest story, psychological profile, and wry social commentary.”

I couldn’t agree more.


  1. Martin Edwards said,

    I was glad to read this, because Peter Turnbull has been an under-estimated crime writer for a very long time. His early Scottish police procedurals were, in some ways, ahead of their time. Because he never got a lucky break, his reputation has faded a bit, which is a pity, because he is a very capable writer. I haven’t read this book yet, but I look forward to it.

  2. marie kasch said,

    Have just come across Peter Turnbulls books and I’m hooked,have read 2 this weekend couldn’t put them down.

  3. marie kasch said,

    Just noticed the comment by Martin Edwards another fantastic writer and love the ones set in Liverpool which I left 25 years ago but Edwards conjures up the real feel of the city.

  4. From Britain to Brazil: two polished procedurals « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] are the attractions – at least, for this reader – of the novels of Peter Turnbull. The plots are intriguing without being overly convoluted (resulting in the books’ refreshing […]

  5. “‘He trifles with us. Methinks the felon doth trifle.’” – Turning Point, by Peter Turnbull « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Hennessey / Yellich series that I’ve reviewed on this blog. The others are No Stone Unturned, Once a Biker, and Chill Factor. In the first two, I talked about the wonders of York in general, and of  its […]

  6. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] – Louise Penny Minotaur and  The Birthday Present – Barbara Vine Seven Lies – James Lasdun Once a Biker – Peter Turnbull Water Like a Stone – Deborah Crombie Christine Falls – Benjamin Black The […]

  7. Sandi said,

    I have just discovered Peter Turnbull in the form of “The Altered Case”. I agree with the outline above that Turnbull’s writing is intelligent. There is a depth to his writing that keeps me interested. The depth is devised, by Turnbull knowing just the right type of images to describe a character to make them memorable, and the appropriate facts to draw the plot together. Only twice were the facts nearly just padding out the story. This book is an extremely interesting read and I’m looking forward to reading more of Turnbull’s books.

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