This is the 11th in the series featuring the life and crimes of Detective Sophie Allen. She has now reached the rank of Detective Chief Superintendent, and is heading up a new regional crime squad based in the ancient kingdom of Wessex. Their stamping ground is not dissimilar to the area portrayed in the lovely map which used to be the frontispiece in editions of Thomas Hardy’s novels. Equally helpful is Michael Hambling’s list of police characters at the front of his book.
A consultant surgeon and her husband are out walking on the hills above the village of Millhead St Leonard, when they get caught in a rapidly descending mist. While there is no danger from stumbling into a ravine – this is gentle countryside – it is unsettling, and even more so when Miriam Boateng hears a scream, and then catches sight of two figures in the murk just ahead of her. One is definitely being pursued by the other. She reports this to the police, but it is not until a few days later, when a young farm worker out repairing fences finds a dead body, that it becomes obvious that what Boateng saw was the prelude to a savage crime. WeSCU springs into action, and moves in to the Millhead village hall to begin a major investigation. They soon identify the corpse as that of Bridget Kirkbride, a single woman living with Grant, her college-age son in a remote part of the village.
Michael Hambling (left) has already given us a little teaser in the first couple of pages, when we meet as she is preparing to set out on what was to become her last journey. When Grant’s body is found caught up in reeds on the edge of the River Severn in Gloucester, the case becomes more complex, particularly so when the post mortem reveals that he died some days before his mother was killed. Hambling sets out the building blocks of a classic whodunnit, and challenges us to put them together in the correct sequence.
The residents of Millhead are, of course, unlike real life villagers, but this is why we suspend disbelief and buy crime novels. Amongst others, we have a pair of Mrs and Mrs lesbians who hold rather unconventional soirées for their close friends, a rather starchy vicar who is abducted half way through the book, and a ‘lovable rogue’ character who is a poacher and a party gate-crasher. I hope I’m not giving the impression that Hidden Crimes is some sort of Sunday evening TV comfy crime caper. It certainly is not, and parts of it are sombre and unsettling. The whodunnit aspect of the book ends well before the end (75% through on my Kindle), so the sense of mystery does rather evaporate, and the police pursuit ends in the less-than-idyllic streets of Wolverhampton when Sophie Allen is reunited with a criminal from one of her earlier cases.
The book cover is an artist’s impression of the celebrated view down Gold Hill, Shaftsbury, but the tone of the book is neither comfortable nor romantic, as befits a story which reveals the evils – and consequences – of child abuse. Hidden Crimes is a classic police procedural novel and it is played out on the hauntingly beautiful backdrop of the Wessex landscape. It is published by Joffe Books and is available now.