Written by Alastair Gunn — DCI Antonia Hawkins is thrown into her next case when the body of a man is found by some metal detectorists. He is buried on the edge of a remote piece of woodland and is completely naked. He was beaten before his death but he also seems to have been held for up to 24 hours before he was strangled. He is quickly identified thanks to the metalwork from previous surgery in his shoulder.
The book has an uneven beginning. First up is a very clichéd counselling session as Hawkins plays it passive-aggressive with the Met’s shrink. Gunn is then silkily efficient in setting out the back story. Sinking into the third book in the series poses no problems for those who have missed My Bloody Valentine and The Advent Killer. The investigation is quickly into its stride. The dead man was having a fling with a married woman. There seems to be an obvious suspect in the unpleasantly violent husband. Naturally, Hawkins thinks she has her man. Then the scene of crime officers unearth another body from the same patch of woodland in London.
Hawkins is now living with fellow detective Mike Maguire. He is an African-American New Yorker and we quickly learn that the romantic bonds were formed in the course of previous investigations. Their relationship seems secure enough and there is no conflict here. This is a bit of a recurring theme in the novel. There is a domestic conflict subplot that bubbles up when Hawkins’ sister moves in with her two kids. However, the squabbling relationship Hawkins has with her sister feels contrived and the stakes are low. And, similarly, Detective Chief Superintendent Vaughn is determined to fulfil his duty of care and offer Hawkins appropriate levels of pastoral support despite her reluctance. The conflict is all a little ersatz. Hardboiled it ain’t.
Gunn’s writing is undoubtedly competent. It zips along and it is precise and functional. There is a risk of damning with faint praise but that’s not the intention. He isn’t attempting to inject literary pretensions into this story. The prose does its job and gets out of the way. It might be a little on the vanilla side but it is deceptively challenging to accomplish and it reflects Gunn’s talent. If you are after a more lyrical evocation then you will have to look elsewhere but it does also mean that the characters and the story can take centre stage.
As we get through the story more bodies are uncovered. There is a little bit of twisting in the tale and the tension does get ratcheted up. Some of this is a little dampened by a certain amount of repetition across the action scenes. How many times can we read about someone being strangled in one book? Gunn pulls all the strands together into an appropriate crisis and we get our final set piece denouement with echoes of previous traumas for Hawkins.
There is a difficult balance here. Not every detective can be a damaged, solitary, high functioning alcoholic sociopath with dysfunctional relationships in all quarters. The crime genre has plenty of room for all subtypes. The modern police force requires a modicum of sanity and an accurate police procedural has to reflect that while still trying to inject sufficient conflict into the narrative. It might be realistic but in terms of rising tension this tale is curiously flat. There is still much here to like and this serial killer procedural will suit you well if you relish your crime blended with domestic realism.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars