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Wilson, Laura - 'The Riot'
Hardback: 368 pages (Aug. 2013) Publisher: Quercus ISBN: 1782063056

The only people around in any numbers were young men in groups: some all white, some all black, but never mixed. Several had jostled past him, walking as if they owned the place...

London, Notting Hill, August 1958.
DI Stratton, new to his posting in West London, sits in his office examining the pathologist's report. Two weeks ago a young woman went to deliver her family's rent and found the rent collector in his home, stabbed to death. He had been collecting rents for notorious local landlord Danny Perlmann - reputed to have made millions from slum properties in the area. Stratton decides that taking a walk to the crime scene and interviewing the other residents of the building is a good way of getting to know his new patch. He notices the decayed properties, walls daubed with the KBW slogan of the White Defence League, and squalid conditions the likes of which, even in his previous Soho posting, he had never encountered before. The murdered man's building is no exception. Its residents are a mix of white and elderly sitting-tenants; immigrants sleeping turn and turn about in hastily partitioned rooms; and at least one young prostitute. Both the immigrants and prostitute are paying extortionate rents. And whilst the white tenants are ready to blame "the coloureds" for the killing - the West Indian tenants are understandably nervous of Stratton. Stratton calls round to the landlord's office in Westbourne Grove where he finds Perlmann's right-hand man, Laskier. He confirms what the tenants have said - the dead man, far from being a strong arm bully-boy, was a well-liked and sympathetic character. In fact in Laskier's view Perlmann himself was doing a valuable job in providing housing for those who otherwise would find nowhere to live...

The first of this series, STRATTON'S WAR, won Laura Wilson the 2008 CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award. With THE RIOT we reach the fifth book in the series. Its action takes place over a few heat-struck, hectic days in the summer of 1958 which mark the start of Stratton's new posting to the Notting Hill area, an impoverished, slum district beset with rising racial conflict. His first case is the death of a local rent collector. But soon an apparently racially motivated killing is added to his workload, quickly followed by a shocking murder at a community party which turns into chaos as petrol bombs are thrown and rioting breaks out in the surrounding streets. The core of the book is a densely-paced detective story/police procedural which centres on Stratton's interviews and investigations as he tries to make sense of the conflicts and get to the foundations of the killings over a few exhausting days.

Laura Wilson goes to particular lengths to recreate social and historical detail in THE RIOT with accurate names, places, fashions, adverts and events. Period detail continues into the characters. Prominent in the story is Danny Perlmann, who seems to be modelled on the real-life notorious landlord of that area, Peter Rachman, whose alleged intimidation and exploitation of his tenants gave rise to the term "Rachmanism". The novel even contains a homage to Mandy Rice-Davies, one-time lover of Rachman and infamous for her involvement in the "Profumo Affair" of 1963. There is an ironic interest in visiting this list of deprived streets and squares of late 1950s Notting Hill in the knowledge that in twenty-five years time they will have been transformed into some of the most expensive and desirable real estate in West London. But after a while the style of this book was just not for me. I admit to not having read any of the previous DI Stratton books but I do enjoy a sense of place and period in my crime fiction. However, with THE RIOT it was as if I had been presented with such a neat and systematically packed suitcase of period detail that I felt unable to savour its contents; a sense of careful reconstruction somehow interrupted my involvement with the characters and events in the book. This is a personal reaction to the writing. I am sure that followers of the popular DI Stratton and lovers of classic British detection will welcome THE RIOT as an enjoyable addition to the series and genre.

Lynn Harvey, England
November 2013

Lynn blogs at
Little Grey Doll.

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 10/11/2013 13:08