“‘He trifles with us. Methinks the felon doth trifle.'” – Turning Point, by Peter Turnbull

September 8, 2009 at 1:15 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

turning Early on a Monday afternoon, a disabled youth with the unusual name of Ebenezer Moulton presents himself at the Micklegate Bar Police Station in York. He has come from his father’s funeral – has, in fact, walked the entire way, not an easy feat for one on crutches.

Carmen Pharoah, the duty CID officer, conducts the interview. She has her hands full trying to bring Moulton around to stating the real purpose for his visit. Frustrated with his rambling monologue, she at last demands to know where he is going. At which point he blurts out:

“‘I saw a man killed. Murdered. Done in. That’s where I am going.’”

Carmen Pharoah has finally got her answer, and she is well and truly amazed. But that is just the beginning of a string of bizarre revelations. It seems that the murder Ebenezer Moulton witnessed took place some twenty years ago, during a period of flooding in the Vale of York. Four men were parties to the crime. One of them was none other than Walpole Moulton, the father he has just buried…

Alas for the Vale of York, the floods have come again. Numerous families have been evacuated from their homes and given temporary shelter. All of these vacant domiciles prove irresistible to the fraternity of local housebreakers. When we meet Norman Budde, a member in good standing of this less-than-illustrious cohort, he is filling his hold-all with booty as he sloshes through just such a waterlogged premises. But Norman is in for a rude shock: upon entering one of the upstairs bedrooms, he comes upon the body of a young man, slain execution-style and laid out peaceably as though for a wake. Norman is out of there in a flash, but not being a totally irresponsible citizen, he calls the police and tips them off – anonymously, of course – concerning his “find.”

(Norman has been tenderly trained up in his vocation by his father and a raft of uncles. This family is like something out of Charles Dickens:

“‘Always think there is someone in the house until you know otherwise’ was the good advice one of his uncles had once given him, to which his father, who was present, had said, ‘That’s good advice, Norman’, and his mother who was also present had smiled and said, ‘Can you pass the peas please?’)

So: two floods, and two murders, both separated by a period of twenty years. Suddenly DCI Hennessey and his team have their hands full. Hennessey is, as always, grateful to have such exceptionally dedicated and capable officers to work with. In addition to the aforementioned Carmen Pharoah, there’s his long time second-in-commend Somerled Yellich. Thompson Ventnor and Reginald Webster make up the rest of the team.

Each of these individuals has something in his or her personal life that is distinctive: a tragedy, a weakness, a secret. We know some interesting information of this sort is soon to be imparted by the author when he telegraphs his intentions at the beginning of a chapter, e.g. “…Reginald Webster is at home to the most charitable reader.” I find this antiquated locution quite delightful. A similar mode of expression is occasionally present in the dialog, as for instance in Hennessey’s comment in the title of this post.

To my amazement, I find that this is the fourth book in the 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 glorious Minster especially. There is a scene in Turning Point that takes place in Ripon, a cathedral city not far from Harrogate, where our 2007 Smithsonian tour tour began. The cathedral itself is ancient and beautiful. (This post has the pictures we took there.) And Ripon works to hold fast to its heritage and its history.

Thompson and Ventnor have come to this city to interview Penny Hill, the widow of one of the murder victims:

“Her home in Ripon was near the market place with its huge stone column and where the horn blower blows his horn, as a horn blower has done so for centuries, once at each corner of the square, announcing the coming of the twenty-first hour, and doing so each day of the year, including Christmas Day and no matter what the weather conditions.

The horn blower of Ripon

The horn blower of Ripon

I began reading Peter Turnbull’s crime fiction with the series featuring the “P” Division in Glasgow. Toward the end of the 1990’s, Turnbull dropped that series and began the current one. And he turns them out at a good clip: nineteen since 1999! I’ve read about half of them. The latest is Informed Consent (2009), which follows Turning Point (2008). I’ve read about half of them. and I love them. The plots are inventive, the writing is meticulous, the setting, of course, is great, and at this point I am heavily invested in the lives of Hennessey and company. Hennessey himself is inching toward retirement, though he’s reluctant (as am I, on his behalf).

I find the author himself rather mysterious. I’ve searched for a recent picture of him, but I keep coming up with the one I’ve used in previous posts. (It was obtained from the site Tangled Web UK, which does not have updated information on his books.)  pturnbul In a brief but informative essay in The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction, compiled by Mike Ashley (2002), we learn that Peter Turnbull has a nonfiction title to his credit: The Killer Who Never Was (1996). The subject? Jack the Ripper.

Ashley has high praise for the “P” Division novels: “The series is noted not only for its suspenseful atmosphere and realism but also for its tight plotting and portrayal of local colour.”

Scene of the Crime Cover Scene of the Crime: A Guide to the Landscapes of British Detective Fiction by Julian Earwaker and Kathleen Becker  (2002) is one of my favorite mystery references. In this passage, the authors offer some insight on how Turnbull came to the writing of crime fiction:

“Icy rain and freezing winter winds were blowing around Glasgow’s tower blocks and tenements when Peter Turnbull (1950 -) entered the city in 1977 as a young social worker.  shocked and angered to learn that the community of Easterhouse had ‘more people living in it than the city of Perth – with just one shopping centre and four pubs,’ Turnbull wrote his atmospheric debut Deep and Crisp and Even (1981).

[Mike Ashley also has high praise for this novel.]

As I often do when I fail to find any reliable information online – no Wikipedia entry! – I tried the Gale Database Biography Resource Center and was gratified to find two short but illuminating entries. From Contemporary Authors Online we glean the following regarding Peter Turnbull’s career:

“Strathclyde Regional Council, Glasgow, Scotland, social worker, 1978-95; full-time writer, 1995–. Worked as steelworker and crematorium assistant in Sheffield and London, and as a social worker in Brooklyn, NY.

Well, that had some surprises in it! I wonder if Turnbull has considered penning a memoir…

Here’s how the entry in the St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers commences:  “The crime novels of Peter Turnbull are reassuringly familiar in form, with satisfying surprises and twists in their plotting, and an interesting cast of characters.” I think it’s that quality of being “reassuringly familiar in form” that in large part keeps me coming back to this series in particular, and to the British police procedural in general.


  1. Maxine said,

    I enjoyed the P division novels which I read some years ago. I don’t know why I lost touch with this author, have not read any of this series. I seem to recall that the P division series was considered to be the basis for the Taggart TV series, in the sense that the TV series took the idea but slightly changed it so it was not actually based on the books, rather the concepts and atmosphere? (Maybe a bit like Ed McBain and Hill St Blues?)

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for this, Maxine. I didn’t know about the connection, however tenuous, between the “P” Division series and the Taggart series, which I have not watched but will now seek out.

  2. Martin Edwards said,

    Peter Turnbull, whom I’ve known for fifteen years or more, is a very self-effacing individual, but a writer (in my opinion) of real quality. I’ve been familiar with his books since I was a student, and the P Division stories were quite prominent in their day. But he never ‘broke out’ and is now relatively little known. But he is a crime writer who deserves more recognition.

  3. Martin Edwards said,

    I should add, Roberta, that the early episodes of Taggart are, in their complexity and menace, some of the best tv crime shows I’ve ever seen.

  4. Best books of 2009: my own favorites « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] by Barry Maitland Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett Turning Point by Peter Turnbull White Nights by Ann Cleeves A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny Bleeding Heart […]

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