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Hard Girls by Martina Cole

(Headline, $37.99)

oany years ago, I worked at a press agency in East London, and when the Docklands Light Railway wasn’t operating – which was quite often, as I recall – I would take a long, long bus ride to work through outer suburbs such as Bethnal Green and Stratford, past endless identical concrete tower blocks, to the Isle of Dogs.

Those grim streets immediately come to mind when I read a Martina Cole novel.  I can easily imagine the beery, smoky smell of centuries-old pubs, the shifty looking wide boys wearing gold medallions round their necks lurking round the local street markets, and the old-before-their-time, chain-smoking, overly made-up young mums trailing large, unhappy broods of kids behind them.

In Hard Girls, Martina revisits the character of DCI Kate Burrows, a brisk and efficient, yet sometimes vulnerable, old-school cop, who has been putting off retirement for as long as she can, simply because she can’t imagine any other kind of life.

It turns out that’s just as well, because her skills are suddenly in great demand when pretty young prostitutes start dying particularly gruesome deaths on her patch.

Working alongside Kate is DCI Annie Carr. Annie is young and savvy, but a bit too keen to prove herself. She finds it hard to let Kate take the lead and this leads to tension between the two women.

The most difficult thing for Kate, though, is facing up to her partner Pat’s criminal past. She has been turning a blind eye to his doings for years but when he is implicated in the unfolding events, she’s forced to make a life-changing decision.

Martina Cole is known as the writer “who tells it like it is” and she spares her readers nothing when it comes to describing even the most grim and ghastly crime scenes.

Yet there’s a real sense of celebration when it comes to her portrayal of Cockney London. The people who live in those inner-city streets come from long lines of working class battlers, often beset by tragedy, and Martina always offers one or two rough diamonds with hearts of gold to offset the more seedy characters.

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