The story begins with a violent prelude in an English country churchyard. It is dark, cold and damp, Thomas Gray’s “rugged elms” are almost certainly present, and his “rude forefathers of the hamlet” still sleep beneath their headstones, but there is little else elegiac about the scene. A couple, married – although not to each other – are using the sexton’s shed for sex. Then something awful happens. How this links to the main narrative of the book is not made clear until much later.
In another place – a prestigious building in central London – we meet a brother and sister. They couldn’t be more different, Claudine Cadjou is a well-known political lobbyist, used to schmoozing the media and well-versed in the dark arts of the professional publicist. She is suave and chic. Her brother Jethro looks like a madman. His clothes are one step up from rags. He is dirty and unkempt. His home, if such it can be called, is a semi derelict farmhouse in the Lincolnshire fens. He is basically ‘in care’ with Claudine paying his neighbours to make sure he doesn’t starve. Once, he had a brilliant mind, but it has all but been destroyed by psychotic episodes linked to substance abuse. While talking, Claudine is fighting a battle between embarrassment at her brother showing up on her turf, and her love for this wreck of a man. Then her discomfort turns to terror when an unknown man storms into the atrium of the building and stabs Jethro to death.
The man who killed Jethro has just committed several other atrocities nearby. More people are dead, and several not expected to survive. At this point we meet a London copper, DS Benny Dean. Another soul – another torment – but of a different kind. His wife of many years is also a copper, but she has risen through the ranks and now she is a Chief Superintendent. And she wants a divorce. Like Claudine, she is sophisticated, cultured and ambitious. Even her name has changed from homely ‘Fran’ to the media chic ‘Cesca’ Benny has tried his best, put his career on hold while hers prospered, but now she wants out. And the cruelest irony of all? As police are mobilised to investigate the murders, Benny’s wife is put in charge of the investigation, and he has to remember to use the word ‘ma’am’ when phoning in reports.
Benny and his partner DC Helen Savage, and, separately, Claudine, travel to Lincolnshire to investigate Jethro’s’s recent history. At this point it is worth reminding readers about the fens, their geography, their place in literature, and the social history of the area. First, a geological distinction; low lying areas which were once under fresh water are known as fens, while areas reclaimed from the sea are, more properly, marshland. One of the great crime novels in history, The Nine Tailors, was set in the fens (well known to DL Sayers from her days as a rural rector’s daughter) while Jim Kelly’s Philip Dryden series takes place in and around Ely. Graham Swift’s Waterland deals entirely with the darker aspects of fenland history, while John Betjeman wrote a deeply scary poem called A Lincolnshire Tale, wherein a traveler encounters a spectral vicar who still rings the bells in his abandoned church.
“The remoteness was awful, the stillness intense,
Of invisible fenland, around and immense;
And out on the dark, with a roar and a swell,
Swung, hollowly thundering, Speckleby bell.”
I live in the fens and, to this day, there is an insularity about the remote villages and a lingering sense of suspicion about outsiders which I have never encountered anywhere else in England.
Looking back on my previous reviews of David mark’s novels, I see that I have – more than once – likened his work to that of Derek Raymond, I won’t labour the point, but Benny Dean is a 21st century version of Raymond’s valiant but tormented nameless sergeant. Death stalks this book like some hideously deformed entity in an MR James ghost story; it is superbly written, but not for the faint hearted. Twist of Fate is published by Head of Zeus and is available now. For more by DL Mark (writing as David Mark) click the author image below.