Imagine, if you will, a roomful of marketing executives, PR gurus and recruitment consultants all clustered round a flip chart. Too terrible to contemplate already? Bear with me, as this only imaginary. Their task? To come up with crime fiction’s next female superstar private investigator. A Jack Reacher in a skirt, a John Rebus in a Kylie Jenner-endorsed little black dress, maybe? Never in all their hours of creative brainstorming would they have come up with Annie Hauxwell’s Catherine Berlin. She is as cranky as hell, rather bedraggled, and just a few months short of her concessionary bus pass. Oh, yes, I almost forgot. She is an addict – her drug of choice, or perhaps necessity, is heroin, but she will make serious inroads into a bottle of Talisker if the China White is not available. Or – and this is in extremis – a few codeine will have to do.
It’s always fun to come late to an established series that has many established followers, if only to see what all the fuss is about. I had covered Catherine Berlin in writing brief news grabs, but House of Bones was to be my first proper read. There is a wonderfully funereal atmosphere throughout the book. Sometimes this is literal, as at the beginning:
“Catherine Berlin followed a hearse through the grand arch of the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium. She wondered how long it would be before she passed under it feet first.”
One of the corpses in the narrative – and there are several – is found in the crypt of St Bride’s, Fleet Street, and later in the novel Berlin gatecrashes a society funeral and allows her few remaining heart strings to be tugged when she hears the evocative words of her mother’s favourite hymn:
“Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.”
The dark, end-of-days mood of the book is underlined by the dismal weather. I was reminded of the old soldiers’ song from The Great War, sung to the tune of ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.’ They sang:
“Raining, raining, raining: always bloody well raining:
Raining all the morning, and raining all the night.”
Hauxwell gives us London rain, cold, dispiriting, grey and naggingly pervasive. She also gives us Hong Kong rain, which is hot, loud and has the intensity of special effects in a disaster movie. Berlin’s London milieu is bleak. She treads the streets of Limehouse, Wapping, and Leyton. These eastern parts have modern millionaire housing developments and expensively imagined conversions of a Victorian past, but that past is never far away, like a cold sore disguised with cosmetics. The river is also a baleful presence in what becomes a nightmarish environment.
Berlin is hired by Burghley LLP:
“ a boutique outfit established by spooks and former Whitehall types. They offered discreet investigative and intelligence services. Deep pockets essential.”
Her task? To investigate the strange case of a teenage boy who has been arrested for assault. He is Chinese, and attends an exclusive public school. All fees are provided by an apparently charitable organisation which takes Chinese orphans and gives them a sociological blood transfusion, the plasma being supplied by the British aristocracy. The problem is, though, Philip Chen’s alleged victim has disappeared, and only exists on grainy footage from a CCTV camera. Who is he? Where is he? What provoked the violent assault?
Berlin rapidly becomes aware that Philip’s most visible patron is a prodigiously wealthy and well connected member of the House of Lords, Jack Haileybury. He sits, spiderlike, in a web of his own creation, which is actually a converted warehouse in Wapping. He has expensive tastes, both in narcotics, oak-aged single malt whisky and, more troubling, teenage boys.
Sometimes aided and sometimes hindered by a manic and rather disturbed policeman, DC Terence Bryant, Berlin hacks her way through the long grass of the British establishment to uncover an abomination which dwarfs some of the recent real-life exposures of what celebrities get up to. She travels to Hong Kong, and then mainland China in pursuit of the truth, but when she finally has it, she is made to wish she had looked the other way. The title? It becomes horribly appropriate only in the last few pages of the novel, but to say more would be to spoil your experience of Annie Hauxwell’s dark and compelling piece of English Noir.