The Winker by Andrew Martin

The Winker

Corsair| 6 June 2019| 272 pages| e-book| review copy via NetGalley|4 stars

I haven’t read anything by Andrew Martin before and as I began reading The Winker I found it decidedly odd and a bit creepy. I don’t like the cover at all and the title didn’t appeal to me either. But the description interested me:

London, 1976.

In Belgravia in the heat of summer, Lee Jones, a faded and embittered rock star, is checking out a group of women through the heavy cigarette smoke in a crowded pub. He makes eye contact with one, and winks. After allowing glances to linger for a while longer, he finally moves towards her.

In that moment, his programme of terror – years in the making – has begun.

Months later, the first of the many chilling headlines to come appears: ‘Police hunting winking killer.’

Meanwhile in France.

Charles Underhill, a wealthy Englishman living in Paris, has good reason to be interested in the activities of the so-called Winking Killer. With a past to hide and his future precarious, Charles is determined to discover the Winker’s identity.

In the overheating cities of London, Oxford, Paris and Nice, a game of cat and mouse develops, and catching someone’s eye becomes increasingly perilous. But if no one dares look, a killer can hide in plain sight . . .

From ‘a master of historical crime fiction’ (The Guardian), The Winker is a gripping thriller that won’t let you look away.

My thoughts:

I like the structure of this book. It is set in 1976 with flashbacks to 1951, in several locations, mainly London and Nice and sometimes in Paris and Oxford. Each time and place is clearly highlighted. The book is largely character-led. Lee Jones, a failed pop singer and psychopath is working on a ‘project’, nothing to do with music, aiming to achieve world-wide fame. He calls it a ‘programme’ and involves something he calls a ‘folder’ and his ‘trademark’. He is living in a fantasy world, accompanied by Abigail a journalist who intermittently interviews Lee. It was all a bit ambiguous at first and it took me a few pages to decide what I thought about Abigail and her role in the book. 

Then there is Charles Underhill, a man of about fifty,  living a self-imposed exile in France, because of an event in Oxford whilst he was a student there. He lives a very routine life in Paris with his mother Syl, except for his annual holiday in Nice. His routine is upset when he receives a postcard with a picture of the river at Oxford showing a boat full of university rowers, but no message on the back. When more unsigned postcards arrive he is worried that they are from Pat Price who was at the university with him in 1951.

In Nice Charles meets Howard Miller, a crime fiction writer. His first novel wasn’t a great success and he is looking for inspiration for his next novel, to prove to his father he wasn’t wasting his time. These three men are now set on a collision course as Charles offers to pay Howard for a couple of days work in Oxford to find out who had sent him the anonymous postcards. From that point onwards everything fell into place for me and I was hooked.

This is psychological crime fiction, you know right from the beginning who the ‘Winker’ is, but the precise method of the murders is not clear (at least not to me) until later in the book. And Charles’ secret is revealed quite early in the book. Neither Lee nor Charles are pleasant characters and this is decidedly a creepy tale, but it’s also a compelling one. Howard, on the other hand, is rather a naive character, who nevertheless gets to the bottom of the mystery. I loved the settings – they are so vivid and evocative of the 1970s; the places, the intense heat of the summer  of 1976, the people, their clothes, the hairstyles, sunglasses, cars, exotic cigarettes, and especially the music of the 70s, bring it all to life in technicolour. I think this is ripe for being made into a film.

Andrew Martin, a former Spectator Young Writer of the Year, grew up in Yorkshire. He has written for the Evening Standard, the Sunday Times, the Independent on Sunday and the Daily Telegraph, among others. His weekly column appears in the New Statesman and he is the author of numerous articles and books – of both fiction and non-fiction. For more information see his website.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.