THE FIRE KILLER . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2022-05-20 at 19.02.27Late again!
My excuse is that I am a one-man-band here at Fully Booked, and notwithstanding  the occasional erudite contribution from Stuart Radmore (who has forgotten more about crime fiction than most people will ever know), there are only so many books I can read and review properly. My first experience of Peterborough copper DI Barton  is the fifth of the series (written by Ross Greenwood), The Fire Killer. Peterborough is a big place, at least for us Fenland townies, but is rarely featured in CriFi novels. I am pretty sure that Peter Robinson’s DI Banks grew up there (The Summer That Never Was) and Eva Dolan’s Zigic and Ferreira books are certainly set in the city.

Peterborough is a strange city in some ways. Its heart is divided in three. One third is its medieval heritage and its magnificent cathedral; another third is its railway history, while the final slice belongs to the fact that some anonymous civil servants decided, in the 1950s, that it should be a ‘new town’. Hence its sprawling suburbs, divided by interminable dual carriageways and countless roundabouts, stippled with anonymous housing developments, most with the faux-pastoral suffix – choose your own – such as Meadows, Leys, Gardens, Fields and even Waters. I digress. No matter that Peterborough isn’t quite sure whether it is in Cambridgeshire or Northamptonshire, this novel is rather good.

We are in standard police procedural territory here. DI John Barton is large, bald, busy, rather unglamorous, but a decent copper. He and his team are called in to investigate a body found in a skip that has been deliberately set alight. The body is eventually identified as that of a young woman whose life has unraveled after she had fleeting success as a fashion model. Barton and his ‘oppo’, Sergeant Zander, are sure that the culprit lives in one of a row of four shabby terraced houses not far from the skip, but which one is the home of the arsonist?

Screen Shot 2022-05-20 at 19.51.23Ross Greenwood (right) has fun inviting us to make out own guesses, but also makes the game a little more interesting by giving us intermittent chapters narrated by The Fire Killer, but he is very wary about giving us too many clues. The dead girl, Jess Craven had been involved with a very rich dentist with links – as a customer – to the London drug trade.

There are a couple of other mysterious blazes, but when one of Barton’s suspects meets a horrifying end in another fire – but this time in a torched Transit van – the search for The Fire Killer just seems to be chasing its own tale. The rich dentist, Stefan Russo, is clearly hiding something, but he is ‘lawyered up’ and even though he has some very questionable contacts in London, the police are unable to get close to him.

Then, there is a breakthrough – or at least Barton thinks it is – and someone confesses to being The Fire Killer. As readers we can judge how much of the book is left, and it is clear to us that Barton has some work still to do before he closes the case. There is, as we might predict, a very clever twist in the tale, but when an exhausted Barton finally goes off for a family caravan holiday in Sunny Hunny (Hunstanton), we suspect that at the back of his mind there is still a some doubt about the true identity of The Fire Killer.

John Barton is an excellent creation, and this book is cleverly plotted, with one or two spectacular bursts of serious violence. It is published by Boldwood Books, and will be available in paperback and Kindle from 30th May.

WATCH HER DISAPPEAR … Between the covers


Corinne Sawyer leaves her lover fast asleep between the tangled sheets of their bed. She puts on her designer running gear and strides off into the early morning chill, music pounding in her head via her earphones, her feet pumping out a rhythm which triggers the endorphins which will ease her legs and lungs through this challenge. Corinne won’t see forty again, but she is proud of her body, and will not go down without a fight as middle age creeps ever nearer. But the expensive cosmetic surgery which has recently refined her face is shattered – along with life itself – when she is brutally attacked on a lonely path.

When Corinne’s body is discovered, Peterborough CID are called to the scene. The medical examiner gets to his feet rather quickly, and before he can answer the inevitable questions about the time and cause of death, he stuns the waiting detectives with the simplest of statements.They are not investigating the murder of a female jogger. The victim is, in the most obvious of ways, a biological man, and thus the murder becomes a case of extreme transphobia – and a job for the city’s Hate Crimes Unit.

whdNot the least of Eva Dolan’s achievements in this remarkable novel is to pinpoint with painful accuracy and honesty what happens to children and wives when a father – originally Colin Sawyer – decides to abandon the male role and become a woman. Even after the nightmare scene where Sawyer’s daughters come back to the house unexpectedly, and find their father en femme at the sink, doing the dishes, Jessica and Lily have come to think of their dad as ‘mum’. The pain that this must cause a biological mother in this situation can only be imagined, and it is interesting that Nina Sawyer is drawn as a fairly unpleasant piece of work.

Dolan doesn’t preach, but she sets out with stark clarity the yawning chasm between perfectly decent and honest people who have genuine difficulty in understanding the whole transgender issue, and those individuals whose psychology is at potentially destructive odds with their physiology. We peer in at a world where gender pronouns can be wielded with as deadly effect as fists, hammers and knives. Dolan also casts a wary eye over the role of professional anti-phobia activists, and suggests that, while their intentions may be good, their handiwork can have tragic consequences.

evaAside from the nuanced description of gender politics and psychological challenges faced by the characters in this novel, we have to ask the burning question. Does Watch Her Disappear work as a crime story? My answer is a resounding and emphatc ‘Yes”. The whodunnit aspect of the story is teasingly effective, with Dolan (right) scattering little hints, false leads and blind alleys in her wake as she races along ahead of us. Crime fiction is full almost to the brim with Detective Inspectors and their trusty Sergeants, but Dolan breathes on those particular embers and makes them fire up afresh in the shape of Detective Inspector Dushan Zigic and Detective Sergeant Mel Ferreira of the Hate Crimes Unit. The neat twist is, of course, that both Zigic and Ferreira are themselves children of immigrants, and the chemistry between the two is potent and complex.

Incidentally, speaking as a near-local to Peterborough, I can testify that the topographical setting of the novel is impeccable. Dolan captures beautifully the crunching of the gears between the different facets of the city. The old Victorian railway town, with its certainty of values and smoky industrial warmth does not always sit happily with the once-familiar terraced streets where mosques have replaced Methodist chapels, or the quick-build-garden suburbs where every street is either a Meadow, a Leys or an Orchard.

The killer is eventually unmasked by Zogic and Ferreira, but not before Dolan has woven a spectacular spiders’ web – delicate yet strong – of motive, jealousy, human frailty and guilt. Her triumph is the revelation that the broken body found on that Ferry Meadows footpath was not just one person, but both Colin and Corinne. If that is too enigmatic, then you will just have to read the book for yourself – you will not regret doing so. Watch Her Disappear is published by Harvill Secker and is out now.


THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Watch Her Disappear


IT SEEMS ONLY YESTERDAY that former reviewing colleague Eva Dolan took the crime fiction world by storm with her astonishing debut Long Way Home. This tale of a pair of coppers, DI Zigic and DS Ferreira, tackling hate crime in one of Britain’s most ethnically diverse cities, Peterborough, shone a sharp light on the uncomfortable truth behind the exploitation of migrants by powerful vested interests. Next came Tell No Tales, and then After You Die.

whdWatch Her Disappear, the latest episode in the career of Zigic and Ferreira is expected to be on the shelves in January 2017, and it reminds us that hate crime can involve other issues than the colour of someone’s skin or the language they speak. A wave of sexual assaults has left Peterborough women wary and fretful, but when the next victim – a fatality – is revealed to have been a genetic man, the case becomes something different altogether.

Eva Dolan is also a great fan of playing poker. Recently, she tweeted,
“If I divide my advance by my wordcount tonight I’ve earned more playing poker than writing. Which means poker is now my day job, I think.”

I’m no gambler, but if I were, I think would be putting a decent sum on the fact that Watch Her Disappear will be another success for one of our best young writers. Watch the review section on Fully Booked for an in depth look nearer the publication date.



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