Newly promoted Detective Sergeant Fiona Griffiths, of South Wales Police, might be said to have a disability. She suffers from…..no, wait, we mustn’t use the word ‘suffers’, in case of causing offence. ‘Has’, maybe? OK, DS Griffiths has Cotard’s Syndrome. This strange condition can manifest itself in many ways, the most extreme of which convinces the person concerned that they are actually dead. Less extreme symptoms include partial disconnection between brain and body, and some of the traits of Asperger’s Syndrome, such as an inability to read or understand social gestures or convention.
So Fiona has been employed as part of some diversity box-ticking exercise, yes? Nay, and thrice nay. After the horrors of her teenage years, when she was institutionalised and in a pharmaceutical haze, she went to university, excelled, and then joined the police. This might be considered an odd career choice, given that Fiona has an the kind of electric intelligence which might not sit well within staid police procedures, but even more strange because her father was – and let’s not mince words – a notorious Cardiff gangster. Father? Well, no. Another intriguing ambiguity is that Mr Griffiths and his homely wife are not Fiona’s blood parents. Fiona came into their lives when they emerged from a social function to find an infant girl sitting in their Jaguar coupe. No message. No name. No reason.
At this point, it is best to make clear that Fiona’s search for her real ancestry and her ambivalence about her adoptive dad’s occupation are a recurrent theme in the career of Fiona Griffiths. Author Harry Bingham introduced us to this remarkable young woman in Talking To The Dead (2013). This debut was followed by Love Story With Murders (2014), The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths (2015) and This Thing Of Darkness (2016).
In this welcome return, Fiona is called to the strangest of crime scenes. Is it a crime scene? Maybe not. A young woman is found, very dead, but dressed in white linen, remarkably peaceful, surrounded by votive lights, and lying on a table in a Dead House – an ancient form of mortuary chapel attached to a medieval church. An autopsy concludes that she died, basically, from heart disease, as young as she was. While the local police are intent on wrapping the case up as unexplained, Fiona is struck by two irreconcilable facts. Why would a woman who has had, according to the autopsy, subtle – and expensive – cosmetic surgery, have stubbly unshaven legs?
The ensuing investigation romps along at great pace, as Fiona – teamed with a grumpy, phlegmatic Camarthen Detective Inspector – uncovers a terrifying conspiracy involving, among other things, Ukranian oligarchs, wild Welshmen who eat badgers, a secret tunnel under a Brecon hillside – and a community of distinctly unsaintly monks.
Just as in This Thing Of Darkness there was a terrifying passage where Fiona was hanging on for dear life to the a boat thrashing about in a storm, there is a section here which will be very hard going for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. Fiona and her temporary boss struggle through a tunnel system under a Welsh hillside, and I felt every second of it – the constriction, the inability to move more than a few inches, and the sheer terror of being in a virtual rock coffin.
Aside of creating a unique central character, Bingham writes like an angel. His descriptions of the Welsh countryside put you right there in the muddy field, with the smell of sheep, and the distant haze of smoke from a hard-scrabble hill farm chimney. Fans of Fiona Griffiths will know that she courts danger, gets herself into the most terrible scrapes, but will come out fighting like a five-foot-nothing whirling Dervish. Her boss says:
“And well done, I suppose. I can’t think of any other officer of mine who’d have got themselves into that situation. But I can’t think of anyone who’d have got out of it either.”
I wrote, when reviewing an earlier Fiona Griffiths novel for another book site:
“In a lifetime of reading crime fiction I have never come across anyone quite like Fiona Griffiths …. Read this book. Enjoy every syllable.”
The publishers have used that quote on my edition of The Dead House, and I stand by every word. You won’t read a better book all year.