I didn’t think I could wait until June to get my sticky mitts on The Lighterman – the third and latest in the magnificent Charles Holborne series, penned by the inestimably talented Simon Michael.
Mercifully, the wait was abridged, as I received a pre-publication copy of the manuscript from the author himself – an honour indeed.
I absolutely adored The Brief and An Honest Man (see my Amazon and Goodreads reviews of the same), for the pellucid quality of the writing, the apparently effortless realisation of 60s London – such evocation comes only with masses of hard work and research, I am sure; and most of all, I loved the first two novels for their fascinating central character, Charles Holborne.
It is a great sadness that there can be no more Philip Marlowe adventures – but in Charles Holborne we have, to my mind, an equal to that iconic detective, that honourable and enigmatic outsider: in place of 30s and 40s LA we are transported to London in the Swinging Sixties (not swinging for everyone, as becomes apparent in The Lighterman); and rather than a gumshoe, our hero is a barrister.
In The Lighterman we are given a lot more back-story about Holborne’s earlier life, back when he was Charles Horowitz. The most moving prologue takes us back to 1940, where 15-year-old Charles, a headstrong lad, and already a promising young boxer, is caught up with his family in a bombing raid. Later evacuated to Wales, Charles yearns for the streets that formed him and lives a precarious existence in his bombed-out former home, until taken on by a relation as an apprentice lighterman on the River Thames. Charles and his slightly older cousin work hard and play hard in wartime London, their escapades often straying to the wrong side of the law.
The Thames, its islands and bridges, its laws – both natural and man-made – acts as a vital component of, and theme within, The Lighterman, essentially becoming a character in its own right. The research into the work of the lightermen from the 40s onwards, their code and their creed, the pleasures and dangers of their trade, have clearly been researched in minute detail – yet it never feels like research on the page. It is never laborious, nor does it seek to prove knowledge for its own sake. Salient points about this industry, fascinating in themselves, are always at the service of plot and character development, moreover, at the service of drama.
An Honest Man ended on a hook of monumental proportions (not mentioned here for obvious reasons). Suffice it to say that Charles was in a desperate fix, and the threats that loomed over his life and peace of mind at the end of the second novel are now fully realised in The Lighterman. Those threats come in the shape of The Kray Twins, well, Ronnie, to be precise – who, in The Lighterman, is drawn with chilling mutability, absence of affect, and all the hallmarks of a bona fide psychopath, or, if you prefer a more medicalised diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenic. Simon Michael has Ronnie Kray play a pivotal, and very physical, role in the ensuing thrill-drenched narrative.
Again, as with the previous two novels, Charles’ honour is severely tested, and while we can see he is acting from an unstinting sense of justice, family loyalty, and an unshakeable moral code, circumstances conspire to force him into non-adherence to certain legal niceties – in short, he sails close to the wind, and we are with him all the way as he charts deeply perilous waters.
I won’t describe the final scene, so as not to give away any aspect of plot; other than to say we are once more totally blindsided by a turnaround that makes you gasp at the predicament Charles Holborne now finds himself in.
A legal and character-driven thriller of the highest calibre. I didn’t even yet mention the scintillating court room scenes, which are written with a fidelity to procedure and psychological truth that surely only an ex-barrister could muster.