JOHN BLACKBURN – Broken Boy. Secker & Warburg, UK, hardcover, 1959. Mill, US, hardcover, 1962. Lancer 73-475, US, paperback, 1966. Sphere, UK, paperback, 1970. Valancourt Books, US, trade paperback, 2016.

   Because it was summer, nobody considered the motive of the birds. And motive they have, namely to pick at the corpse of a young woman found in the river, stabbed and mutilated, drowned, and tarted out replete with all you would expect to find in a prostitute’s possession, save for one thing, the girl is a virgin.

   Thus begins one of the fine suspense novels by British writer John Blackburn (Ring of Roses, The Scent of New Mown Hay, The Gaunt Woman) featuring General Kirk, his brilliant and ruthless secret service chief, and various continuing characters, here Michael Howard and Penny Wise who first appeared in A Sour Apple Tree.

   Broken Boy is a detective novel and a thriller, but also a horror novel (some Blackburn novels are also science fiction of a very British tradition) with society itself threatened by outside forces. It deals with a witch cult, its historical roots found in the evil reign of Queen Ranavalono of 19th Century Madagascar, who reduced the population of her island by half during her reign (from five million to half that), the Broken Boy of the title being her weakling son for whom she ruthlessly tried to secure the throne (unsuccessfully) and the name of the cult Kirk must battle.

   In Blackburn’s novel a modern witch cult risen from the activities of a defrocked priest who aided Ranavalono to defeat a French invasion, poses a threat to modern England as bloody and dangerous as any political or scientific enemy, and to Blackburn’s credit it is all grounded in well observed psychology and believable motives. His heroes and villains are human, and more frightening for it.

   No one has to tone down their critical faculties to enjoy a Blackburn novel. This sort of thing has a long history in British thriller fiction dating at least as far back as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, up through Sax Rohmer’s novels (both Fu Manchu and not), John Buchan (The Three Hostages) Sydney Horler (The Vampire). Dennis Wheatley, Francis Gerard’s Sir John Meredith series, John Creasey’s Dr. Palfrey tales, Philip McCutchan’s Commander Shaw series (especially the later ones), and works by John Christopher and L. P. Davies.

   Even James Bond encounters voodoo in Live and Let Die, Roderick Alleyn a cult in one of Ngaio Marsh’s books, and Albert Campion fantastic threats in several late Allingham entries. But few writers combined the elements as successfully as Blackburn, who ratchets up the suspense to unbearable levels while keeping the reader too distracted to notice how easily he is swallowing the whole thing.

   Whether his monsters are human or not Blackburn has a true gift for combining Gothic elements with modern concerns, and wringing the last drop of cold sweat from the reader without once going over the top or spoiling the game.

   As Inspector Hailstone says toward the end: “The whole thing sounds more like one of Grimm’s grimmer fairy stories than real life.” To which Kirk replies: “I suppose it does, old boy. Not Grimm though, much earlier and much more basic in every way.”

   That sums up the pleasures of a Blackburn novel as well, something “much more basic in every way,” than just a spy novel, detective tale, or horror novel. If you have never read Blackburn you are in for a treat, though I wouldn’t start one before bedtime if you expect to get much sleep.