Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Crime novels that feature psychologists and psychiatrists have been popular in the last decades, and that development in the genre makes sense. Courts, attorneys and police departments rely on psychologists for evaluations, expert testimony and more. So it’s not surprising that we see this profession represented in crime fiction. Let’s take a look at one fictional psychologist today and turn the spotlight on Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard, the first in her Alice Quentin series.
Quentin is a London psychologist with a solid reputation and a steady enough personal life. She has a traumatic background, but has been able to cope with the scars from it. One day she gets a request from DCI Don Burns to interview a killer, Morris Cley, who’s about to be released. Her task will be to determine whether Cley is likely to present a threat to anyone. The interview takes place and Quentin reports that Cley is probably not going to be dangerous once he’s ‘on the outside.’
The next night, Quentin is going for her usual evening run through London when she discovers a body at Crossbones Yard, an old burial ground for prostitutes. But this is no case of old bones rising to the surface. This victim’s body was dumped at the cemetery. Burns believes that this killing is related to some murders that took place several years ago, and that Cley is the key. The body bears the hallmarks of those other murders, and Cley was associated with the couple, now jailed, who were convicted of those killings. Could he be carrying on their work? It certainly seems that way when the police discover that Cley has disappeared. Burns asks Quentin to help profile the killer and hopefully establish what happened.
In the meantime, Quentin has problems of her own. Her brother William ‘Will’, who grew up in the same traumatic home, has dealt with mental health issues for quite some time, and is fragile even at his best. And lately, he hasn’t been anywhere near his best. Then Quentin starts to get disturbing letters that are obviously from someone who’s been watching her. The threats in them aren’t specific, but they are unmistakable.
One possibility is that these letters are connected with the case, and that the killer is threatening Quentin. But there are other possible explanations. Quentin has recently cooled down relations between her and her boyfriend, Sean. Could he be responsible? And what about Will? An even more chilling possibility is that Sean or Will is the killer. In that case, Quentin is in even greater danger.
Then there’s another murder, again bearing the hallmarks of the earlier killings. And the person stalking Quentin seems more determined than ever to unnerve her. Little by little, Quentin puts the pieces of the puzzle together. And as she does, she learns just how much risk there is for her.
This novel features a psychologist, so one element in it is the professional work that Quentin does. She works with clients, assists in other police cases and interacts with her colleagues. And we see this as she builds a psychological profile of this killer, too. It’s also worth noting that some scenes in this novel take place in prisons that hold psychiatric cases. Those scenes add to the suspense in the story, as well as to the reader’s knowledge of what psychologists do.
Another element in the novel is the character of Alice Quentin. The story is told in the first person, so we get to know several things about her. She and Will are the products of a deeply painful childhood that left both of them scarred. Will deals with serious psychological problems, although he does make efforts to have some kind of life. As for Quentin, she works to stay stable, and most of the time she’s functional. Readers who prefer their protagonists to be able to manage their lives will be pleased. But that doesn’t mean she is entirely free of scars. She has a serious case of claustrophobia that makes it difficult to ride in elevators or spend any time in closets or other small spaces. Her release is running and the freedom that it gives her.
And that leads to another element in this novel: the London setting. Quentin runs through many different parts of London, and we follow along as she goes to various places. And her work on this case takes her to several parts of the city as well. Readers who enjoy novels set in London will be pleased. The novel doesn’t delve as much into London’s rich cultural diversity, but the city is an important part of the story.
There’s also the element of what it’s like to be stalked. Quentin is not a stereotypical ‘helpless female.’ But she is badly shaken by the letters she receives, and by the knowledge that someone is watching her. It unsettles her as it would anyone, and makes her quite vulnerable. Readers who do not like the scenario of ‘woman being stalked’ will notice this.
The solution to the case is unsettling. Without spoiling the story, I can say that it is related to the overarching theme of coping with trauma that we see in some other places in the story. As Quentin works with her clients, deals with her own life, and helps the police work with this case of a disturbed person, we see just what happens to people when their mental health is at risk.
There is certainly violence in this story. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there is evidence of real violence. But the violence is not extended. Rather, the novel’s focus is on the psychology of violence; and the suspense comes from that psychological buildup.
Crossbones Yard is the story of the impact of trauma, told in a context of a series of brutal killings. It features a psychologist who knows more than she wishes she did about the long-term effects of trauma, and has a distinctive modern-London setting. But what’s your view? Have you read Crossbones Yard? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 19 October/Tuesday 20 October – Double Indemnity – James M. Cain
Monday 27 October/Tuesday 28 October – Long Way Home – Eva Dolan
Monday 2 November/Tuesday 3 November – Laidlaw – William McIllvanney