Written by Harry Bingham – DC Fiona Griffiths is a complete oddity in the ranks of the South Wales Police. She studied philosophy at Cambridge, neither smokes nor drinks, has a father with a distinctly criminal background and appears to be like a fish out of water in the male-dominated atmosphere of the briefing room. When DCI Jackson drafts her in to help with Operation Lohan – an investigation into the death of a local prostitute and her six-year-old daughter – she quickly exasperates him with her quirky approach to questioning witnesses.
A debit card belonging to a dead businessman has been found amongst the debris in the murdered woman’s room, and when Fiona is despatched to make routine enquiries of the man’s widow, her intuition tells her that the case is more complex than it first appears. She quickly makes connections between Operation Lohan, sex trafficking, and the apparently unrelated case of a bent ex-policeman who is awaiting trial for embezzlement. Fiona is paired with DS Jane Alexander to interview scared and beaten prostitutes.
The real bite delivered by this book comes from Fi Griffiths herself. She evidently suffered a serious mental condition in her teens, and has insights which frequently startle and puzzle her more prosaic colleagues. She is frequently confused by normal social and conversational responses, almost as if she has some type of Asperger’s syndrome, but she is smart enough to develop strategies to cope with this. The narrative is entirely first-person, but there are some engaging secondary characters, including DCI Jackson, who is by turns exasperated and amazed by his impulsive junior, and DS David Brydon who finds Fi attractive but something of an enigma.
Harry Bingham’s real achievement here is not in writing an enthralling account of good people trying to combat exploitation, greed and cynicism. It is not simply that he has painted a heartbreaking portrait of the glib ease with which youth can be corrupted. It is not just that his economical but telling descriptions of the South Wales townscapes, riverfronts and hillsides provide a perfect setting for the action. His real triumph is the sleight of hand he uses to bring us closer to Fi Griffiths. We learn about her condition not through lengthy explanation but through subtle snatches of dialogue, stray thoughts and her seemingly random moments of confusion or self-awareness. He cleverly leaks information about Fi, chapter by chapter, and has several surprises up his sleeve. There are few laughs in this book, but I loved the relationship between Fi and her ‘Yummy Mummy’ partner, Jane. Each is intimidated by the other, and this is described with perception and wry humour.
The book is beautifully written. It’s a tour de force, and for me the book of the year so far, without question. The plot is plausible without being predictable, and the dialogue is terse and smart as a tack. The book ends with one final, rather sweet, surprise, but as Fi’s efforts to unravel the mystery gather pace, the standard elements of the action thriller are handled expertly.
Make no mistake – this is much, much more than a crime thriller. Talking to the Dead is first and foremost the tale of a courageous, vulnerable, slightly crazy, but compassionate and intelligent young woman who is trying to succeed in a pedestrian and procedure-dominated organisation. The author has created a fascinating and utterly captivating character. I was slightly puzzled by her in the opening pages, but as Bingham allowed her to reveal more about herself, I became totally gripped, and in the end I would have charged down the valley towards the guns on her behalf.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars