Writing as Katherine Webb, the author (left) is a well established writer of several books which seem to be in the romantic/historical/mystery genre, but I believe this is her first novel with both feet firmly planted on the terra firma of crime fiction. Wiltshire copper DI Matthew Lockyer, after a professional error of judgment, has been sidelined into a Cold Case unit, consisting of himself and Constable Gemma Broad.
He receives a telephone call from a most unexpected source. His caller is Hedy Lambert, a woman he helped convict of murder fourteen years earlier. The case was full of unexpected twists and turns, none more bizarre than the identity of the victim. Harry, son of Emeritus Professor Roland Ferris had left home as a teenager and, seemingly, vanished from the face of the earth. Then he returns home to the Wiltshire village where his father lives. This variation on the tale of The Prodigal Son, takes a turn for the worse, however, when Harry’s dead body is discovered, and standing over it, clutching the murder weapon, is Ferris’s housekeeper Hedy Lambert. Problem is, it’s not Harry Ferris.
After a few days it transpires the the murder victim is actually Mickey Brown, a Traveller, who superficially resembles Harry. Despite the absence of any plausible motive Hedy Lambert is convicted of murder and found guilty, condemned almost entirely by convincing forensic evidence. Now, Lambert has telephoned Lockyer from her prison to tell him that the real Harry Ferris has returned to his father’s house. Lockyer visits Longacres, Ferris’s house in the village of Stoke Lavington, to find the old man at death’s door with cancer of the blood and Harry Ferris totally unwilling to co-operate with the re-opening of the murder case.
As the story develops, we learn more about Lockyer and his background. His parents are what Americans call hardscrabble farmers, elderly and increasingly unable to make a living out of the farm or see any fruits for their lifetime of hard work. The obvious person to take over the farm was Lockyer’s brother Chris, but he is long dead, having been stabbed in a fracas outside a local pub. His killer has never been brought to justice.
One of the many admirable qualities of this book is that Kate Webb doesn’t take any prisoners in her portrayal of rural Wiltshire. Yes, there are obviously some beautiful places, but there are also farms which are bleak, wind-swept and run-down; there are villages and small towns with rough and tumble pubs which are no strangers to violence. Please don’t expect the sun-kissed limestone cottages and trim thatched roofs of Midsomer; this is Wiltshire in winter from a literal point of view, and metaphorically it is darker territory altogether.
On one level, Stay Buried is a superior whodunnit, as by the half way point Kate Webb has presented us with a tasty line-up of possible killers. There is Paul Rifkin, Ferris’s factotum, the real Harry Ferris, Tor Gravich, the young research assistant who was in Longacres at the time of the murder, Sean Hannington, a violent Traveller thug with a grudge against Mickey Brown, Serena Godwin, and even Roland Ferris himself. Or are we being led up the garden path, and is the killer Hedy Lambert after all? The eventual solution is elegant, complex and unexpected. On another level altogether, the book is a forensic examination of the nature of grief, guilt, and the corrosive effect of harbouring a desire for revenge.
This is excellent crime fiction, with a central character who has the quirks and flaws to make him totally credible. The geographical backdrop against which DI Matt Lockyer does his job is painted ‘warts and all’, lending a psychological darkness to proceedings. Stay Buried is published by Quercus and will available as listed below: