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Two new thrillers reviewed here take your mind off life with Covid-19 as you enter alternative pandemic worlds – in Peter May's Lockdown and Lesley Kelly's Murder At The Music Factory

By Margaret Chrystall

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Lockdown by Peter May.
Lockdown by Peter May.

Lockdown by Peter May

IT only takes the tiniest bit of imagination to step out of our Covid-19 reality and into the infinitely darker post-pandemic world of Peter May’s thriller LOCKDOWN.

There are moments when it seems as if the book could have been written literally yesterday, so accurate are parts of the day-to-day coronavirus picture he creates.

“Silence hung over the site, like a low-lying fog. It was extraordinary, really, here in the very heart of the Capital. No traffic noise, no voices raised in casual communication or amusement, no overhead roar of jet engines as planes circled towards Gatwick or Heathrow.”

In fact, the book was first created in the past – 2005, was when the writer’s researches began as he riffed on the ‘what if?’ of what might come if bird flu became a pandemic.

At the time, publishers told him his vision of what a London in lockdown was like was “unrealistic”, he writes in his Foreword to the book.

But if, like me, you began the book the same night Prime Minister Boris Johnson was taken into intensive care at St Thomas’ hospital, you definitely got an eerie shiver of déjà vu reaching the end of Chapter One of Lockdown, where the PM is in St Thomas’ hospital.

In his 2020 introduction to the book, Peter May says he only remembered about Lockdown as Covid-19 began to spread, so he broke it out of a “dusty Dropbox file” to share it with us “ … if only to realise how much worse things could actually be”.

So this grimmer, fictional London under martial law with looting and one whole virus-free area secured with guns against intruder infections, and the fear that 1.3 million would die, is held up by Peter May to make us grateful Covid-19 isn’t worse. But they do have FluKill, a remedy to fight the virus – and work on a vaccine is much more advanced than it is against the coronavirus.

But yes, it’s good that so far we only have empty versions of the vast hospital he describes where people are taken to die – or the description to linger in the mind of a huge crematorium like something out of a medieval vision of hell:

“The scene below was one he could barely have imagined. Thousands of naked bodies laid out three deep on wooden pallets stretching as far as you could see, cast in their piles like so any mannequins in a doll factory …”

Feverishly read your way through the relentless, addictive thriller and you have to agree with May’s comment that living through the advancing progress of the pandemic now and “the parallels with Lockdown are terrifying”.

Lockdown centres on the last case that Detective Inspector Jack MacNeil has to solve before leaving the Metropolitan Police. It is as chilling, gruesome and cynical as you might fear in such a desperate time in humanity’s fortunes.

A Highlander, all the way from Inverness-shire originally, MacNeil is a battered hero with Scotland The Brave as his ringtone, but a broken marriage and his resignation submitted to end his police career. All he wants is to get out to claw back the time to see his son Sean grow up before it’s too late.

But with one day to go before walking away from his job, he’s asked to investigate a dumped bag of bones holding up construction on a new overspill hospital site.

Determined to solve the murder, Jack finds the forensics on the remains bring him closer to the one bright spark on his horizon as Amy, a member of the team, painstakingly works to find the identity of the young victim. But the killers have a desperate reason to tail Jack and Amy, to cover up a crime that could blow life apart.

The chase is on and Jack races across London with a Bondesque energy for tackling landmarks from the Thames to Greenwich and the London Eye.

Desperate times bring out the best in a small set of characters pushed to the edge in a selfish world – it’s May’s reminder perhaps that bravery, emotional strength and a determination to do the right thing can survive even the toughest tests.

Racing to the end of the book – you will have no choice as the action is remorseless – you will empathise with these survivors in Lockdown’s all too plausible world making the best of ruined lives and an uncertain future.

And, as May suggests in his 2020 foreword, maybe realise how lucky we are now. So far ... MC

Lockdown by Peter May (riverrun). E-book out now £4.99. Paperback £8.99 out on Thursday, April 30

Murder At The Music Factory– out now.
Murder At The Music Factory– out now.

Murder At The Music Factory by Lesley Kelly

THERE’S something strangely comforting about swapping the real-life Covid-19 pandemic for the fictional “Virus” of Lesley Kelly’s fourth Health Of Strangers novel.

But not really, because in Murder At The Music Factory – though the unlikely dynamic duo of nippy sweetie Mona and cautious Bernard find themselves still tracking down people who have missed their monthly Health Check, the blood test to confirm they aren’t carrying the Virus – the couple find themselves in deadly danger.

It would be bad enough if it was just from Bryce, a former IT co-worker they have to catch before he fulfils his threat of killing one public servant every day.

But as if that wasn’t enough jeopardy for the two North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team officers, riling one of the city’s most ruthless drugs barons with an act of humanity suddenly seems like a very bad idea.

In her pacy political thrillers, Lesley Kelly is great at capturing the pleasures and frustrations of something many of us in lockdown are missing horribly – working in a team. And she gives her characters enough quirks and back story details to let us share their feelings about their compadres.

You can see why they might get frustrated with the high-handed and hot-headed Maitland – and also why it’s so lovely to have the steady nerve and life experience of former nurse Carole.

In their own way, Mona and Bernard have the credentials in their personal lives to be counted on the side of life’s losers. But you can’t help rooting for them and having high hopes.

Bernard is trying to keep secret from his work colleagues a strangely promising romance, while facing up to some closure on his previous relationship. Meanwhile, Mona is nursing a nasty head trauma which has meant the failure of having to give in and move back in with her mum.

By book four, personal lives aside, we know they are the good guys. And they’re our good guys.

But from the moment we met them on page one of the first Health Of Strangers book, it was obvious that Mona and Bernard were a superbly odd couple with contrasting approaches on many things – not least, how they cope with the sight of a ripe dead body.

Kelly loves her dry humour and Mona relishes winding up the sensitive-stomached Bernard, as she does from the word go:

“… there’s some kind of larvae on his cheek here.’ She waved him closer: ‘Come and see’.

He bolted out the door, and Mona gave in to a grin. You either had the nerve for these kind of things, or you didn’t.”

Lesley Kelly’s Virus has already killed a million in the series, the books opening six months on from the pandemic’s outbreak – and a world further down the line than we are with Covid-19.

OK, Lesley didn’t predict the run on toilet paper we saw in real-life, but plenty of other things. She has Bernard notice the food stockpiling that isn’t meant to be happening – before revealing the stash of cans that keeps tripping him up in his own flat! And chocaholics might want to note one scary prediction, the £2.50 price tag on a Mars bar infuriating Bernard in his local shop.

But it’s serious stuff with lives on the line at the start of the latest book. Bernard finds himself a little close to a bullet, while the intensely shifty Carlotta Carmichael, the Cabinet Secretary for Virus Policy, definitely seems to have something to hide as the conspiracies at the heart of the pandemic story take centre stage.

Add in Colin Karma, the violent, half-crazy guitarist of a former prog rock band called Arthusian Fell, and his interest in a disused factory, a couple of missing misogynistic students, and soon it is hard to keep up.

And it is probably worth noting that the first noticeable symptom to give away an exposure to the thoroughly infectious Health Of Strangers strain is a rise in temperature as the Murder At The Music Factory plot has you turning those pages faster and faster. MC

Murder At The Music Factory (Sandstone Press, £7.99) is out now. You can buy it at: https://sandstonepress.square.site/

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