Book Review: David Stafford’s Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders

Skelton's Guide to Suitcase Murders: 2 (Skelton's Guides) (Skelton's Guides,  2): Amazon.co.uk: David Stafford: 9780749026882: Books

Renowned literary chameleon David Stafford’s new novel is a hugely fun, humorous and accessible take on the 1920s murder mystery dynamic

Edition Published by: Allison & Busby, 2021

There are few who understand multi-faceted drama quite as well as David Stafford. His experience spans decades across media for theatre, TV and radio, crafting work with the likes of Benjamin Zepheniah and Alexei Sayle.

It’s no surprise, then, that the trademarks of his addictive style – genuine laugh-out-loud humour and a wry approach to societal ills – run rampant in Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders.

Set in 1929 Britain, barrister Arthur Skelton’s life is uprooted when a woman’s dismembered body appears in a suitcase. Faced with the task of proving the murdered woman’s husband – Dr Ibrahim Aziz – innocent, Skelton and his clerk Edgar Hobbes embark on a gritty journey that’ll see them traverse London, Yorkshire and Scotland to find the true culprit before Aziz is sentenced to hang. 

Quiet Humour and Potent Ethics

Right from the off, Stafford indulges in rich character dynamics and descriptions, as well as a sense of real childlike wonder; the possibilities eeked out of bleak, rural Britain seem endless:

‘One of the great things about the gravel pit was, just like it had ate the kid who died, sometimes it sicked stuff up’.

Like a lot of the best British comedies, Stafford draws humour out of the relatively mundane; Cluedo, for example, or discussions about the sizes of suitcases. But it’s always instantly recognisable. And the relationship between Skelton and his wife, or Skelton and Edgar, thrives and is brought to life by that brilliantly dry timing.

And as theatrical as the dialogue can be, it’s also fulsome and always well realised. Just as humour quickly rises out of thin air, so too does ethical potency:

Mila: ‘Flying isn’t a matter of brute strength; it’s a matter of endurance. And women endure. Women endure’.
Skelton: ‘Yes, they do. I’ve noticed that’.

Sure-fire Political Designs

Thanks to intricate crafting and sensitivity, the morality in the book never seems crowbarred-in. Where issues of race and gender arise, he tests the temperature of modernity and mixes it with 1920s sentiment perfectly.

In the early stages of the book there are reflections of dark truths come to light at the BBC in recent years and critical thinkers who subscribed to a poisonous Eugenics mentality. And he clearly understands the political dynamic between Britain and Egypt in the early 20th century. It’s direct in its social commentary, whether it be taking aim at racism or religion. And the progression of young legal student Rose Critchlow is a whirlwind come the novel’s end.

The Most Readable Murder Mystery of 2021?

Stafford brings everything full circle with a light, deft and nuanced hand. The narrative conclusions for most of the characters are as hilarious as they are touching.

Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders can be considered one of the truly accessible, down-to-earth murder mysteries, helped in spades by rich portraits and human tangibility. It’s always immense fun and might just be one of the most readable murder mysteries of 2021.

You can buy Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders from Allison & Busby now.

Image preview

BOOK REVIEW: GARY DONELLY’S NEVER ASK THE DEAD

The third in Northern Irish writer Gary Donelly’s D. I. Sheen series, Never Ask the Dead is a nail-biting, exhilarating piece of Belfast noir that has great drama and terrible truth in spades.

Edition published: Allison & Busby, 2021

‘Sometimes the past, just like our childhood, comes back and finds us, whether we’re ready or not.’

So writes Belfast-born, London-based writer Gary Donelly in his scintillating new thriller Never Ask the Dead. The third novel in his Owen Sheen & Aoife McCusker series, it’s unbelievably tense and exciting, the shadow of Belfast’s past looming large while the book examines and excavates the Troubles’ lingering impact.

Colleagues in the police’s Serious Historic Offences Unit – or SHOT – Sheen and McCusker get thrown into Britain’s murky involvement in The Troubles when a walk-in turns up looking for his missing father. A warning note, difficult police chief and several re-opened cases later, our protagonists are locked in an intense game of cat-and-mouse, battling rogue elements on both sides of the conflict’s divide.

A Realist Sense of Menace

Gary Donelly clearly knows the history of the Troubles inside out. And given the impact of early 2021’s Brexit complications for Northern Ireland, this is certainly a timely release.

But the story’s sense of grit is timeless. Whether he’s depicting dilapidated Belfast suburbs or stalking paranoia, he’s totally realistic.

He writes in a typically acerbic, dry Belfast scrawl, rich in bleak humour and colloquialisms. And while his emphasis is more on blood-quickening chase sequences and destructive hypocrisy, he writes about domestic and commonplace themes – alcoholism, romance and parenthood, for example – with knowing aplomb. His understanding of claustrophobia and one-on-one menace, too, is as vivid as in any BBC drama.

‘Belfast’s Vortex of Violence’

‘In Belfast, history usually spelt the Troubles and this case, it seemed, was no exception’.

Given that sociological divisions in Northern Ireland are simmering once again, any novel which deals with the province’s politics needs to be sensitive. The book manages to tread the centrist line impressively, excavating the horrific part played by British Special Branch agents whilst never shying away from the maleficent nature of the IRA.

Readers should be aware that the violence itself is often gruesome and inspired by real-life atrocities – just like how the characters are sometimes reminiscent of real-life players. Many of the novel’s more sinister instances will be likely to ring bells.

What is the truth?

The main emphasis of the book is on being a nail-biting, haunting story. But like all the best detective mysteries, Never Ask the Dead consistently navigates the meaning of truth. And in the context of the ‘Dirty War’, the meaning is always muddied, bloodied and soaked in sadness.

Crucially, you don’t need to be avidly aware of Northern Ireland’s history to enjoy the book. Donelly’s ‘alternate Belfast’ is privy to dark secrets as much as it is blood-raising drama. So whilst there are constant questions in Never Ask the Dead, the author prioritises a brilliantly page-turning story.

You can purchase Never Ask the Dead from Allison & Busby now.