I won’t repeat my spiel about coming late to an established series (which I seem to do all too often), so here’s a brief account of where we are in Past Life. Aector McAvoy is a Detective Sergeant working in Hull, on the north bank of the Humber Estuary. He is married to Roisin, who is of Irish Traveller heritage, and they have two children, Fin and Lilah. His boss is Detective Superintendent Trish Pharoah. McAvoy is a bear of a man, born to a Scottish crofter family. He is capable of great violence, but is fundamentally a gentle soul but perhaps too conciliatory and thoughtful for his own good. Author David Mark tells us:
“He is not a man at ease with the world or his place in it. He feels permanently displace; dislocated – endlessly cast as an outsider. He’s still the lumbering red-haired Scotsman who left the family croft at ten years old and has been looking for home ever since.”
The story begins with a murder, graphically described and, at this point in the review, it is probably pertinent to warn squeamish readers to return to the world of painless and tidy murders in Cotswold manor houses and drawing rooms, because death in this book is ugly, ragged, slow and visceral. The victim is a middle-aged woman who makes a living out of reading Tarot cards, tea leaves, crystal balls and other trinkets of the clairvoyance trade. She lives in an isolated cottage on the bleak shore of the Humber and, one evening, with a cold wind scouring in off the river, she tells one fortune too many.
When McAvoy and Pharoah arrive at the scene they find the ravaged remains of Dymphna Lowell, and understand why one or two of the police officers first to respond to the 999 call have parted company with their last meal. Trish Pharoah has seen worse, but then she has been a regular onlooker at grisly tableaux that demonstrate the depths that humans can sometimes plumb. She is the wrong side of middle age, but not going gently into that good night. She has four daughters and nursed her husband – although he was an absolute bastard – day and night as he took a long time to die from an aneurism.
As McAvoy and Pharoah hunt the killer, the back-story is crucial and it needs to be explained. Roisin’s family have been engaged in a decades-long blood feud with another clan, and there has been copious amounts of blood shed along the way. Part of this history involved Roisin saving McAvoy from an infamous killer nicknamed ‘Cromwell’. Cromwell was then gruesomely punished by Roisin’s father, she and McAvoy fell in love and married, but the savage murder of Roisin’s aunt – another fortune teller – cloaks the narrative like a shroud. Roisin is a woman not at ease with the world or herself:
“She has found herself some mornings with little horseshoe grooves dug into the soft flesh of her palms. Sometimes her wrists and elbows ache until lunchtime. She sleeps like a toppled pugilist: a Pompeian tragedy. She sees such terrible things in the few snatched moments of unconsciousness.”
When the satanic Cromwell strikes hard at McAvoy’s family, the big man goes off the radar and hunts down the killer. David Mark (right) gives us what we think is the climax as McAvoy and Cromwell go head to head in a terrifying and violent battle in a disused WW1 sea fort, but just as we relax and think “job well done”, there is a plot twist that few will see coming, and we learn that there is a final trauma to be endured by the McAvoy family.
This is a dark, brooding novel, with more than a touch of Derek Raymond-esque nihilism and despair but, like his late, great Noir predecessor, David Mark also gives us searing honesty and compassion. Past Life is published by Severn House and is available now in hardback, and as a KIndle in November.