Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The British police procedural in its varied forms has been a staple of crime fiction for a very long time. It’s evolved with the times, but is still very much with us. Let’s take a look at one example of this sort of novel today, and turn the spotlight on Geraldine Evans’ Dead Before Morning. This is the first of her series featuring DI Joe Rafferty and DS Dafyd Llewellyn of the Elmhurst CID in Essex.
The two are called out to the exclusive Elmhurst Sanatorium when the body of a young woman is discovered on the grounds. She doesn’t have any identification, but it’s soon established that she’s not one of the patients; nor is she on the staff. But, since the body was found on the property, Rafferty and Llewellyn start their investigation with the people who live and work there.
The sanatorium, owned by Dr. Anthony Melville-Briggs, has a good reputation and attracts well-heeled patients. So Melville-Briggs wants the police to move as quickly as possible, and involve his hospital as little as possible. And he’s not above using his considerable wealth and influence to ensure that happens. Despite Melville-Briggs’ veiled and not-so-veiled threats and posturing, Rafferty and Llewellyn get to work and begin to get to know the people at the sanatorium.
Before long, the victim is identified as a sex worker, Linda Wilks. This discovery opens up several possibilities. One is that she had arranged to meet someone who works at Elmhurst, and who then killed her. And there is a telephone record to support that. But it does seem an odd place for a sex worker to meet a client. And there’s no evidence as to who could have made that call. One by one, the detectives work through the names of the staff members, but no good leads turn up.
There’s another possibility, too. Melville-Briggs is an unpleasant and much-disliked person – and for good reason. He’s got his share of well-earned enemies and at least one bitter professional rival. It could be that one of those people killed Linda Wilks and left her body on the hospital grounds to sabotage him.
It’s also possible that Melville-Briggs himself is the murderer. He seems to have an unbreakable alibi – he was attending a major evening event at the time, and was seen by a lot of people – but Rafferty and Llewellyn don’t discount him. That’s especially true of Rafferty, who’s taken a strong dislike to the man. And, given his personal habit of serial infidelity, Rafferty’s view isn’t far-fetched. Melville-Briggs could very well have had his reasons for the murder. Little by little, and with an unexpected piece or two of luck, the two detectives find out the truth about the murder. They also uncover some very unseemly things going on at the hospital.
This is a procedural, so the focus is Rafferty and Llewellyn’s search for the killer. The story is told from Rafferty’s point of view (in third person), so readers follow along as he and Llewellyn follow up leads, get information from the medical examiner, interview suspects and witnesses, and make sense of the evidence. This novel isn’t what you’d call an ‘ensemble’ procedural, but readers do get the sense that several people are involved in the investigation.
Because the story is told from Rafferty’s perspective, we learn quite a bit about him. He’s from a large, Irish, working-class family.
‘His family was the limit, especially as some of them were of the opinion that if they must have a copper in the family, he might at least have the decency to be a bent one.’
He’s widowed, and feels a mixture of relief and guilt over that relief when he thinks about his wife. His marriage was not a happy one, and he’s really in no way interested in another try. That doesn’t stop his mother from trying to match him up with his distant cousin, Maureen, though. In this novel, despite her efforts, he’s contentedly single.
Through Rafferty’s eyes, we get to know a little about Llewellyn, too. Unlike his boss, Llewellyn has a university education. He can be quite erudite, and Rafferty is sure that he does it just to be irritating, since he knows that Rafferty can’t match him in that arena. He doesn’t have the experience Rafferty does, but he has a good background in psychology. He’s a recent transfer to Elmhurst in this novel, so readers get the chance to see how this duo first interact and become accustomed to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They are quite different, and they irritate each other at times. But this isn’t a stereotyped case of police who can’t work together and can’t respect each other’s skills.
The solution to the mystery is an unhappy one. This isn’t one of those stories where the killer is led away as everyone else lives happily ever after. There’s some real sadness for some people. That said, it’s also not a gritty, seamy sort of crime novel. A friend I trust implicitly once described certain kinds of novels as ‘cosies with an edge.’ This one falls within that category. It’s not gratuitous, and the violence, while mentioned and made clear, is mostly ‘offstage.’ At the same time, it’s hardly ‘frothy.’
Still, there is wit in the story. For instance, at one point, Rafferty is sharing a theory about the killer with Llewellyn.
‘Back into his stride with a vengeance, Llewellyn threw cold water over the idea with the ease of long practise.’
There are also some funny bits as Rafferty’s mother tries to match him up with Maureen, and as she asks for his help getting a wayward cousin out of jail.
Dead Before Morning is a light police procedural that introduces two quite different detectives, each of whom is good at his job, but in different ways. It takes place mostly in the context of an exclusive psychiatric hospital, and gives readers a look at what sometimes goes on behind very respectable doors. But what’s your view? Have you read Dead Before Morning? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 18 January/Tuesday, 19 January – The Beast Must Die – Nicholas Blake
Monday, 25 January/Tuesday, 26 January – The Merchant’s House – Kate Ellis
Monday 1 February/Tuesday 2 February – Maximum Bob – Elmore Leonard