In Jim Kelly’s novels, the past is like a sunken ship that has lain undisturbed on the sea bed for decades. Then, with a freak tide, or maybe some seismic shift, the ship’s blackened timbers surface once again, breaking through the surface of the present. In this, the latest case for Detective Inspector Peter Shaw and Sergeant George Valentine, the metaphor becomes literal. In the terrible storm of January 31st 1953, a tempest that battered the East Anglian coast and claimed over 300 lives, a dilapidated Dutch coaster, the Coralia, went down, taking its captain and crew with her.
Meanwhile, the unique seaside town of Hunstanton – unique in that it is an east coast resort which faces west – has been literally rocked by an explosion on its crowded beach. Something buried deep beneath the sand is triggered by some boys determined to dig a sink-hole sized pit before the tide sweeps in. There is a brief moment when something metallic and shiny appears in the wall of their excavation, but then hell is unleashed. Miraculously, no-one is seriously hurt, but the beach is closed to holidaymakers while forensic experts and a bomb disposal team from the army do their stuff.
Shaw is faced with several possibilities. Was the explosive device recently planted by extremists from the STP – Stop The Pier – movement, who are protesting against the construction of a huge new pier which will suck trade and footfall from existing businesses? Was the explosion a result – as a teenage boffin from King’s Lynn suggests – of the very late detonation of an unexploded bomb dropped in a Zeppelin raid way back in 1915?
Shaw’s case is complicated by the discovery of a dead diver, tethered to the underwater remains of Hunstanton’s Victorian Pier, destroyed by storms in 1978. Eventually, he learns that the murdered diver is the son of one of the crew members of the ill-fated Lagan, whose remains are rotting on the seabed a couple of miles distant from the pleasure beach. And what of the apparently guileless old lady who has been caught giving arsenic-laced sweets to people in a local ‘bus queue.
Detective partnerships have become one of the enduring clichés of crime fiction. Sometimes – but not always – the pairings work, and when they do, they are a very satisfying literary device. The trope usually requires the senior partner to be yin to the junior’s yang. In this case, Peter Shaw has the imagination. George Valentine the curmudgeonly common sense; Shaw is the live wire to Valentine’s earth. The telling difference between these two and other ‘odd couples’ is that Kelly explores the psychological make up of both men, and the glimpses into their personal lives are equally perceptive and revealing. Valentine is older than Shaw by many a mile; so much so, that Valentine actually served in the force alongside Shaw’s late father, a man still revered within the Constabulary. We also learn that were it not for a faux pas which almost ended his career, Valentine would now be Shaw’s senior officer.
New readers will be pleasantly surprised at how Kelly knits together the misdeeds of the past and the murderous intent of the present. Existing fans will simply smile, and say, “He’s done it again.” You will be pushed to find a novel which so successfully welds together the police procedural, the psychological thriller, the ‘whodunnit’, and the atmospheric novel of place. If you find one, please let me know. In the meantime, I will not be holding my breath – except in waiting for the next masterpiece from one of our finest writers. Death Ship is published by Severn House, and is available here. The official launch will be – very appropriately – at the RNLI Headquarters in Hunstanton on 3rd September. For tickets and enquiries ‘phone 07840 375 984