Burned And Broken, by Mark Hardie. UK readers will be yawningly familiar with jokes about Essex. They usually involve insults about dim women, taste in clothes, and a prediliction for gaudy jewellery. For the uninitiated, Essex is a county north of the River Thames and east of London. This debut novel from Mark Hardie is set in the Essex seaside town of Southend, for generations the closest and most accessible chance for millions of Londoners to sample sea air, have a ride on the donkeys, and paddle in the sea. If we are being pernickerty we could say the waters lapping around the paddlers’ ankles are actually those of the Thames Estuary, rather than the North Sea, but hey-ho, let’s move on.
DC Cat Russell and her senior partner DS Frank Pearson are caught up in several investigations which seem to be connected. Most headline-worthy is the apparent immolation, in his car, of another copper – DI Sean Carragher. Russell has worked with him, and when Professional Standards come calling, she is in the hot seat. Another case which appears to be linked is the earlier death of a troubled teenage girl, alumnus of a since-closed children’s home. When the erstwhile director of that home is found swinging gently from a rope, on the scaffolding outside a sleazy nightclub, alarm bells ought to start ringing, but they are muted.
Donna Freeman was a friend of Alicia Goode, the dead girl, and a fellow graduate of the Abigail Burnett Children’s Home. She is convinced that Alicia was murdered, and in the rare moments when her head is clear of drugs, she is determined to find Justice for Alicia.
Of the two principal coppers, Frank Pearson is, by a long chalk, the most convincingly drawn. We sweat with him as he waits for the results of his latest biopsy. He is sure he has some awful cancer of the urinary tract, and struggles to conceal from his colleagues his frequent trips to the police station loo. We know he mourns a suicidal wife, and that he has pretensions to be a saxophonist, but these ambitions are restricted to the equivalent of his own private karaoke.
This book is, at its heart, a police procedural, so we are presented with the standard set of questions. Was Sean Carragher murdered? Was he the worst sort of bent copper? Does Donna have a serious point to prove about her dead friend? What dark secrets lay behind the closure of the children’s home? Hardie answers all of these questions eventually, and although the chronologically disjointed narrative takes a while to bed in, it is, eventually, successful.
This is a fine debut, and it often bounces above the safety net of the standard murder mystery. Hardie adds a dash of noir to the proceedings, and although he has many a mile to travel in the footsteps of The Master, there are touches of the nihilism of Derek Raymond in Hardie’s prose.
Burned And Broken was published on 23 June, and is available from all good booksellers, and from Amazon via this link.