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GEORGE HARLEY

BACKSTORY  (1916 – 1932)

01:00 hours, 14th June, 1916. A twenty-two-year-old George Harley applies the last of the burnt cork to his face and musters with the rest of the members of the Essex Regiment’s elite trench-raiding party to receive the final orders from his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Swales. The men are nervous and hyper-alert, knowing that in ten minutes, under the cover of darkness, they’ll scale the ladders and stealthily negotiate the barbed wire of no-man's land to infiltrate the enemy trench system. For some of them this will be a one-way journey—for all it will be a harrowing slice of warfare, medieval in its savagery.

As they wait the men check and recheck their small arsenal of silent weaponry: trench-raiding clubs, bayonets, knives, hatchets, and brass knuckles—a particular favourite of Harley’s, and one that will go on to serve him well back in Civvy Street. Harley has made a number of these dangerous forays into enemy lines before; but tonight is different, for the young private has begun to silently question the wisdom of the superiors responsible for all of the death and horror that surrounds him. And—although he doesn’t know it—tonight is the night that he’ll save the life of his commanding officer, a daring act that will earn him the DCM and change the course of his life forever.

Eternally indebted to Harley for his courage that night, Lieutenant Colonel Swales takes the young private under his wing. During their shared time on the Western Front, as well as his obvious grit and determination, Swales soon recognizes another extraordinary quality in Private Harley—a voracious hunger for knowledge and a natural capacity to assimilate it from any means available. When hostilities finally cease (with Swales promoted to the rank of General) he persuades the now slightly jaded Harley to join him in a move to the Secret Intelligence Service. At first Harley makes an excellent field operative—his working-class upbringing in the East End giving him a valuable and unique advantage in his undercover work. But before long Harley’s burgeoning personal politics start to jar with the ideology of the SIS. Things come to a head when he witnesses what he believes to be official collusion in the Zinoviev Letter affair and he promptly resigns from the service.

Wanting some breathing space to plan his future, Harley immediately signs up for a year at sea with the Merchant Navy, sailing the world’s oceans and gaining some valuable life experience. He returns in 1926 to a nation preparing itself for the General Strike, moving into a house just off Tottenham Court Road, left to him by his eccentric Uncle Blake—an extraordinary self-made adventurer who disappeared fifteen years earlier on an expedition to discover Machu Picchu with Hiram Bingham.

Always a precocious autodidact and a great believer in the liberating power of knowledge, Harley spends the closing years of the 1920s on a journey of self-education, embracing the exciting advances in science and philosophy of the post-war period. To earn a living he starts a small private detective agency, operating mostly in the West End, and along with an eclectic collection of books and curios inherited from Uncle Blake, he builds up an impressive research library to help him with his investigations. Harley soon discovers that the combination of his streetwise upbringing, his natural inquisitiveness, and the practical skills that he learnt in the SIS, means that he is perfectly disposed to this particular line of work. But it isn’t all work and no play. Along with the advances in scientific research Harley keeps abreast of the latest trends in popular culture; he becomes an avid fan of the new Jazz music and a collector of the latest technology—including a Norton CS1 motorbike with sidecar (which he christens ‘Mabel’) and a portable Leica 35mm camera, a valuable tool for any private investigator.

By the time he meets Cynthia Masters—a beautiful young cellist—Harley’s life has attained a certain level of stability. His detective agency has grown into a successful small business and for the moment he enjoys a good working relationship with Scotland Yard—this being before the Met becomes infected with the corruption it will suffer from in the early 1930s. Before long the couple have fallen in love and within the year are engaged to be married; although, much to Cynthia’s annoyance, as a staunch atheist Harley won’t even contemplate a church wedding.

In the summer of 1929, recognizing his unique set of skills, Scotland Yard invites Harley to become a special consultant in the investigation of a string of gruesome child murders. Thanks in no small part to Harley’s deductive powers the trail of clues eventually leads to the arrest and conviction of Osbert Morkens, an Oxford don and esteemed Professor of Ancient History. Incensed that anyone of such humble origins as George Harley could thwart his elaborate plans for a killing spree, the psychopathic Morkens vows to take revenge on the cockney private eye. Having been diagnosed as criminally insane the murderer escapes the hangman’s noose and is incarcerated in Broadmoor, leaving Harley free to return to his Soho agency and plan his wedding.

However, whilst travelling home from a concert one night Cynthia is abducted. A week later—on the same day that the world is plunged into financial ruin by the Wall Street Crash—Harley receives a coded message that he recognizes at once as being from Morkens. He rushes to his fiancée’s apartment where he makes a horrific discovery—Cynthia’s decapitated corpse tucked up in a blood-soaked bed.

Although convinced of his guilt, Harley can find no real proof that Morkens—still safely locked up in his cell in Broadmoor—is responsible for Cynthia’s murder. And despite numerous interrogations the psychopath refuses to divulge the whereabouts of Cynthia’s head.

Now Harley’s life enters a dark period. He stops working and turns to drink and drugs to try to snuff out the grief and the guilt he feels for his fiancée’s death. Finally, with the help of some tough love from his good friend Solly Rosen—after almost a year at rock bottom haunted by daily nightmares of the trenches and the discovery of Cynthia’s headless corpse—Harley manages to pull himself together enough to start to rebuild his life.

But it is a different George Harley that emerges. The privileged background of his fiancée’s killer (and the way that he believes that Morkens’ connections with the establishment helped him avoid a death sentence) has enhanced his prejudice against the upper classes, leaving him with an even greater chip on his shoulder. Tempering this, Harley has also become more sensitive to the victim’s plight; the guilt that he feels over Cynthia’s murder acting as a lodestone for his moral compass, compelling him to protect those he sees as vulnerable—with often troublesome consequences.

And, of course, it is a very different London that he’s returning to …

 

 

 

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PHIL LECOMBER

AUTHOR’S BIOGRAPHY

Phil Lecomber was born at home in 1965 in Slade Green, on the outskirts of South East London—just a few hundred yards from the muddy swirl of the Thames.

Most of his working life has been spent in and around the capital in a variety of occupations. He has worked as a musician in the city’s clubs, pubs and dives; as a steel-fixer helping to build the towering edifices of the square mile (and also working on some of the city’s iconic landmarks, such as Tower Bridge); as a designer of stained-glass windows; and—for the last quarter of a century—as the director of a small company in Mayfair specializing in the electronic security of some of the world’s finest works of art.

All of which, of course, has provided wonderful material for a novelist’s inspiration.

Always an avid reader, a chance encounter as a teenager with a Gerald Kersh short story led to a fascination with the ‘Morbid Age’— the years between the wars. The world that Phil has created for the George Harley Mysteries is the result of the consumption and distillation of myriad contemporary novels, films, historical accounts, biographies and slang dictionaries of the 1930s—with a nod here and there to some of the real-life colourful characters that he’s had the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with over the years.

So, the scene is now set … enter George Harley, stage left …

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