Written by Conrad Williams — Hell is Empty completes the trilogy of Joel Sorrell novels that began with Dust and Desire last year followed by Sonata of the Dead this spring. Conrad Williams really put his London-based PI through the wringer in those first two books and so Sorrell starts the third covered in scars and with an out-of-control vodka addiction.
Luckily, the detective has people who still care about him. Mawker, his old colleague from the Yard brings round some cold case files in the hope that work will bring him out of his funk. Romy, his on-again-off-again girlfriend gives him an ultimatum: stop the drinking or he won’t see her again. What really gets him back on track again are his search for his missing daughter Sarah, and a job for an old friend.
Sorrell hasn’t seen Karen Leonard since their school days, when they had a thing for each other. Now she turns up out of the blue, not making much sense, but insisting someone has kidnapped her six-year-old son, Simon. There’s been no ransom demand, and she won’t involve the police under any circumstances. She doesn’t know who might have it in for her, but she’s going to get a phone call at a local Chinese restaurant that night telling her how to get Simon back and she wants Sorrell alongside to help. Sorrell knows better than to believe most of the story she is trying to sell him, but with a child missing he gives her the benefit of the doubt.
All that changes after a long night of driving around the southern England racing to catch the next telephone call. At the point of exhaustion, the pair crash in a derelict farmhouse. Sorrell wakes up alone to find Karen has taken the car and disappeared.
The next day he catches up with her at her boyfriend’s flat, but waiting for him is Karen’s corpse and her killer. Sorrell survives that encounter but his attacker doesn’t. He calls it in to Mawker who breaks the bad news. Cold Quay, England’s most secure prison, has had a breakout and Graeme Tann, murderer of Sorrell’s wife is loose. Sorrell is obsessed with Tann. Tann is obsessed with him. And, the man who killed Karen Leonard was one of Tann’s acolytes. The stage is set for a game of cat and mouse where the stakes couldn’t be higher. Sorrell must find Tann before Tann finds his daughter, and any stranger he meets could be an assassin. When another killer breaks into the safe house Sorrell is staying at and kills his guard, he knows the police can’t help him. This is between him and Tann, and Sorrell is fine with that – some things are just too personal.
Whatever you are looking for in your crime fiction – as long as it is not sleuthing cats – these three books have it in spades. If you want to know the state of the nation, take a walk down London’s mean streets with most quick-witted, sarcastic detective of recent times. If plotting and puzzles is your thing, then marvel at how Williams has delivered, and concluded, three separate mysteries while the whole time building to the shattering emotional conclusion of his overarching story – Sarah’s disappearance. Sorrell even solves one of the cold cases in a satisfying denouement. If it’s fine writing your after, well I lost count the amount of times a snippet of conversation or a descriptive phrase stopped me in my tracks.
This feels like the end for Sorrell. If not, then great, but if so I can understand that. Williams understands the old maxim about always leaving them wanting more. Raise a glass (of neat vodka, the cheap stuff is ok, Sorrell knows it gets the job done) to the greatest series of crime fiction in recent memory.
For an equally powerful British crime fiction series try The Factory, written by Derek Raymond.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars