There are locations for British crime novels that fit certain moods. You can have rural idylls which are shattered by evil deeds – the Cotswolds, the Yorkshire Dales and the majestic Scottish Highlands all fit that bill. Then you have the criminals hiding behind the bright lights of cities like London, Glasgow, and Manchester. James Henry has chosen a rather more understated milieu for his Nick Lowry police novels – Essex, and in particular, the garrison town of Colchester.
Essex has become something of a trigger word in recent years, conjuring up images such as lavish mansions owned by London gangsters and dumb bottle-blondes with their perma-tanned, medallioned boyfriends. James Henry, however, takes us back forty years to the 1980s. DI Nick Lowry and his boss, Chief Superintendent Sparks, inhabit a police HQ which leaks, has rotten floorboards, and is maybe only months away from the demolishers’ wrecking ball. Sparks contemplates his desk:
“He studied the wooden surface of his desk. Countless semicircles, rings from years of mugs, cups, scotch glasses, placed carelessly and staining the untreated grain. The there were more pronounced wounds and scars: cigarette burns, knife scores, unusual marks – traces of events only the man behind the desk could read.”
Since Roman times, the history of Colchester has been inextricably intertwined with that of soldiering, and it is the death of a young ‘squaddie’ (an unranked private soldier) that Lowry investigates. Improbably, it seems that the dead man was shot in a Victorian-style duel, complete with gentlemanly observance and the presence of Seconds. With the help of his friend Captain James Oldham, of the Military Police, Lowry discovers that the two men had been fighting over a woman. But who was the other duellist, and who was the woman?
The plot goes this way and that, but this is a book that is always about the quality of the prose. Lowry has a young subordinate called Kenton, who has been on leave since being traumatised by the death of a young girl. Kenton is clever, well-educated, but enjoys his stimulants. In pursuit of the more legal kind, he observes pub life:
“..it was different being here as a punter. You saw the place through different eyes; peaceful and inviting and shabbily familiar. Flaking paintwork, worn hardwood surfaces, the yellow, cracked ceiling; a naked aging structure smoothed by the warmth of alcohol and density of cigarette smoke.”
“The first to arrive were the regulars. Men in their sixties. One, Wilf, was already in situ, perched quietly at a corner table, steadfastly drinking IPA. He would sut there until last orders, then leave as silently as he had arrived. Around midday, the bohemian set – ‘intellectual dossers’, Sparks called them – would drift in. Young men clutching tatty paperbacks. Sucking the end of biros and staring pensively into the middle distance.”
Like most self-respecting fictional police detectives, Lowry’s personal life is something of a wasteland. He is divorced, and his wife has poisoned their son against him. He feels that the years are taking their toll on him, but he remains compassionate:
“Lowry moved to place his arm across Sparks’s shoulders, but instead grasped the nearest arm, squeezed the firm bicep and bowed his head. He was winded by a surge of sympathy, revealing an attachment to the older man that seldom surfaced. Even now – more and more, in fact, the older he became – life caught Lowry out, introducing unsolicited emotions and concerns, age bringing with it a new sort of awareness.”
The plot is the least important part of this fine novel, but it unfolds gradually. The woman whose favours are being fought over by the duellists is not a woman at all, but a fifteen year-old schoolgirl, the daughter of a local businessman. He, in turn, has unfinished business with a local enrepreneur, and business that dates back to a racial attack three decades earlier. We are in a world of simmering resentment born out of old slights, and the result? The proverbial dish that is best served cold.
Whitethroat is bleak, downbeat and mesmerising; a subtle, compassionate and beautifully written novel that is something of an elegy to a way of policing – and living – that is gone for ever. James Henry (above right), as James Gurbutt, has also written prequels to RD Wingfield’s Jack Frost series. Whitethroat is published by Riverrun and will be out in hardback on 9th July. The two previous Nick Lowry novels are pictured below.