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AFTER THE FIRE . . . Between the covers

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Jo Spain’s Irish copper Tom Reynolds – now Detective Chief Superintendent, if you please – returns in After The Fire and we are, as ever, in Dublin’s Fair City. Are the girls still ‘So Pretty’? The young woman walking naked down the city street, much to the astonishment of shoppers might have been pretty once, but now she is in a terrible state. Hair awry, skin blackened with dirt and a look of sheer terror in her eyes.

Except that is not dirt on her skin. It is soot, and she has escaped, traumatised, from a catastrophic house fire. The terraced house is in an area which has moved upmarket because of its proximity to the The International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) but the services being offered at the ruined house were something different altogether. First one body is recovered, and then another, and as the young woman – a Russian –  recovers in hospital, it becomes clear to the police that the house was a brothel, and she was one of the items on the grisly menu.

As a DCS, Tom Reynolds is not meant to get his hands dirty at an investigational level, but there is no drama in balancing budgets and supervising staff deployment, so the admirable Mrs Spain has Tom notionally taking a spot of leave so that he can lend a hand in the case which is being led by his former protégé Laura Lennon.

Tyanna, the woman who fled the fire, is too terrified of the people who controlled the trade at 3 Shipping Row to be of much use, but she has mentioned a baby, now missing, the child of a young woman whose corpse was discovered in the building. Another frightened young woman – Nina Cusack – who was bought and sold there has also emerged, but she has sought sanctuary with her parents and is, again, too terrified to divulge much about the identities of the guilty men who are controlling the brutal trade.

The sheer fluency of Jo Spain’s writing will come as no surprise to those of us who are long term admirers, and the bottom line is that every book she writes is, quite simply, a bloody fine read. It is, however, worth taking a moment to look at just how and why she is so good. Lesser writers will seed their narratives with gore and gruesome detail, while Spain leaves us in no doubt about how brutal people can be, but in a much more subtle way.

Some police procedurals rely too much on the central copper being a maverick, or a bitter misanthrope, or a damaged person with a hundred different devils to fight each day. Tom Reynolds doesn’t distract us in that way – he is a decent man who has been dealt a fair hand by fate, and so we don’t waste valuable time having to understand him by examining his CD collection. (Yes, I know CDs are so very yesterday, but you get my drift)

As for elaborate scene setting with endless paragraphs about how Dublin looks, smells, sounds and feels, Jo Spain puts us in the place with a couple of telling sentences. We know we are in Dublin – that’s fine – but then she gets on with the important stuff. The important stuff? That is the story and above all, Jo Spain is a storytelling genius. Those who follow her career will know she is also much sought after as a screenwriter. The Tom Reynolds books and the stand-alones are not written for the screen, but they may as well be because every page, every paragraph and every sentence comes to life as vividly – and as visually – as if we were standing right there, watching.

After The Fire is published by Quercus. It is available now as a Kindle, and will be out in paperback on 6th August.

For more on Jo Spain and her novels, click the image below.

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ONLY THE DEAD CAN TELL . . . Between The Covers

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By my reckoning this is the fifteenth outing for Alex Gray’s veteran Glaswegian copper, William – now Detective Superintendent – Lorimer. A woman – who, if witnesses are to be believed, was a deeply unpleasant person – is found stabbed to death, her hands clutched around a top-of-the-range kitchen knife. Dorothy Guilford was widely disliked both within her own family and further afield while her husband, Peter – by contrast – has few detractors. Yet the working hypothesis of the police investigating Dorothy’s demise is that Peter Guilford did the deed.

OTDCT COVER SMALLLorimer has become bogged down in a partially – and only partially – successful investigation into murder, prostitution and people trafficking based in Aberdeen. In the Granite City some entrepreneurs, denied a living by the decline in the oil and gas industries, have taken to trading in other commodities – human lives. However, to borrow the memorable line from The Scottish Play, Lorimer’s team have “scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it.” The head of the gang responsible for taking young and innocent Romany women from impoverished Slovakian villages, and setting them to work in Scottish brothels is known only as “Max”. The very mention of his name is enough to silence witnesses, even those who have every reason to long for his downfall. But how – if at all – is Max connected to Peter Guilford, arrested for his wife’s murder, but now beaten within an inch of his life while on remand in Glasgow’s Barlinnie prison?

Alex Gray gives us an enthralling supporting cast. Ever present are the consultant psychologist, Dr Solomon Brightman and his wife Rosie, a pathologist who has the essential – but unenviable – task of literally eviscerating the human bodies which are the result of murder most foul. Young Detective Constable Kirsty Wilson goes above and beyond the call of duty to make sense of the confusing and contradictory ‘facts’ of the Dorothy Guilford case. All the while, though, she is facing a personal dilemma. Her boyfriend has just won the promotion of his dreams – a prominent position in his bank’s Chicago operation. But will Kirsty cast aside her own imminent promotion to Detective Sergeant, and follow James in his pursuit of The American Dream?

AlexGrayThe British police procedural – the Scottish police procedural, even – is a crowded field, and each author and their characters tries to bring something different to choosy readers. Where Alex Gray (right) makes her mark, time and time again, is that she is unafraid to show the better things of life, the timeless touches of nature in a summer garden, or the warmth of affection between characters, particularly, of course, the bond between William and Margaret Lorimer. Here is one such moment:

“She smiled as he selected a bottle from the fridge. The dusk was settling over the treetops, a haze of apricot light melting into the burnished skies …….she pulled a cardigan across her shoulders as she settled down on the garden bench, eyes gazing upwards as a thrush trilled its liquid notes. Live in the moment, she thought, breathing in the sweetness that wafted from the night-scented stocks.”

This is not to say that Gray wears rose-tinted spectacles. This is far, far from the case, and her scenes depicting the violence – both emotional and physical – that we inflict on one another are powerful, visceral and compelling.

A particular mention needs to be made of the deft touches Gray uses when writing about Margaret Lorimer. Here is a woman much to be envied in many ways. She has a loving husband, a stable and prosperous home life, and a teaching career in which she touches the lives of so many young people in her school. And yet, and yet. A cloud hovers over Margaret, and it is one that can never be blown from the otherwise blue sky. The couple’s inability to have children sometimes weighs heavily, especially when friends and colleagues are gifted with children. But Gray never allows Margaret to become embittered, and if she envies Rosie and Solomon, for example, then she keeps it to herself.

Only The Dead Can Tell is, quite simply, superbly written and plotted. It sums up everything that is golden and enthralling about a good book. It is published by Sphere, and will be out as a hardback and a Kindle on 22nd March.

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