Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As I mentioned in a recent post, there’s a wide range of crime fiction set in Wales. Some of it takes place in rural areas; some takes place in larger cities. Let’s take a closer look at one such novel today, and turn the spotlight on Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, the first of his Fiona Griffiths series.
Griffiths has only been a Detective Constable (DC) with the Cardiff police for a short time when Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Dennis Jackson taps her to join a murder investigation team. The bodies of Janet Mancini and her six-year-old daughter, April, have been found in an apartment not their own, and there are some odd features about the case. One of the strangest is that an almost-new credit card belonging to wealthy Brendan Rattigan is found at the scene. But Rattigan’s been dead for a few months, so he couldn’t be the killer. So, how did the card end up at the crime scene? That connection is one lead to follow, and Griffiths talks to his widow.
There are other leads, too. It soon comes up that Janet Mancini was a former drug addict who’d been in and out of trouble. She wasn’t addicted at the time of her death, but she was an occasional sex worker. Either of those two facts might lead to the killer. So, Griffiths makes contact with some of the regular sex workers in the area, to try to learn as much as she can about the victims. She also reaches out to Social Services, so that she can get some background on Janet Mancini’s case.
At first, not very much turns up. In part, that’s because all of the evidence seems to show that Janet was trying to do the best she could to put her life together for her daughter’s sake. There doesn’t seem to have been a reason for her to be killed. There’s also the fact that several of the other sex workers are not willing to talk to the police. And those who are don’t seem willing to say an awful lot.
Bit by bit, though, Jackson, Griffiths, and the rest of the team start to get some pieces of the puzzle. Then, there’s another murder. And this new death seems designed as a warning not to say anything to the police. Then, Griffiths gets a warning of her own. It’s now clear that this case is much more than a prostitute killed by a client. Something much bigger is going on, and the team slowly ties together the various pieces of the investigation.
In the meantime, Griffiths is also involved in the case of Brian Penry, a former Met police officer who retired for medical reasons, and took another job. Soon enough, he began embezzling from his new employer, and was caught. Now, it’s a matter of gathering all of the evidence and ensuring that it’ll stand up in court.
In the end, Griffiths learns who the murderer is, and why the victims were killed. And it turns out that the Penry case is helpful as she does so. These murders are all about people knowing things it’s not safe to know.
This is a police procedural, so readers follow along as the team members follow up leads, talk to witnesses, gather evidence, and so on. There’s also discussion of issues such as what sort of evidence is and isn’t admissible in court, what police are and are not allowed to do, and so on. All of the team members want to catch the person responsible, and everyone knows that that won’t happen if they don’t follow procedure.
Griffiths knows that, too. And, as the most junior member of the team, it’s especially important for her to do what she’s asked to do, when she’s asked to do it. Jackson’s a fair-minded boss, and he is willing to listen to what his team members say. But at the same time, he won’t tolerate mavericks. One of the sources of tension in this novel comes as Griffiths starts to learn the balance between taking initiative (something praiseworthy) and being a maverick (a big problem). And she doesn’t always strike the balance effectively. It’s not spoiling the story to say that she comes too close to being a maverick more than once.
The story is told from Griffiths’ perspective (first person, present tense), so we learn quite a bit about her. As a teen, she battled a severe mental illness, and she still deals with that issue. Things most of us take for granted, such as making friends, emotional responses, and social interactions are very difficult for her. And there’s the matter of how much, if anything, to say to her colleagues about it. That said, though, she doesn’t wallow in her struggles, and she has a close, loving relationship with her parents and two sisters. Interestingly, her mental struggles give her a unique perspective on this case, and allow her to think about it in ways her colleagues can’t.
The story takes place mostly in and around Cardiff, and Bingham makes that clear. Griffiths knows the city well, and the different parts of it play their role in the story. So do some other locations that are a bit more remote. Griffiths is proudly Welsh, and that’s clear in the story, too.
The solution to the mystery is a very sad one, and readers who dislike a lot of violence will notice that there is violence in this story, some of it brutal. This isn’t a light, easy read. The violence isn’t extended, though, and there is some wry, sometimes dark wit. Here, for instance, is a bit of a conversation Griffiths has with a colleague, David Brydon, about the case of Brian Penry:
‘‘He’ll plead guilty.’ [Brydon]
‘I know he’ll plead guilty.’
‘Got to be done, though.’ [Referring to the paperwork involved in the case].
‘Ah, yes, forgot it was State the Obvious Day. Sorry.’’
Some of the wit is self-deprecating, and Griffiths uses it to deal with her mental health issues. On the one hand, they are very real and, without treatment, debilitating. On the other, Griffiths wants to be a part of what she calls Planet Normal. Occasional dry wit is one of her ways of accepting her reality.
Talking to the Dead is a police procedural set clearly in Wales. It features an ugly set of crimes, and a sometimes-gritty search for the truth. And it introduces a sleuth who has a unique perspective on life, and who is working to be a good detective, and to build what she sees as a normal life. But what’s your view? Have you read Talking to the Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 24 July/Tuesday, 25 July – Bloody Waters – Carolina Garcia-Aguilera
Monday, 31 July/Tuesday, 1 August – Trial of Passion – William Deverell
Monday, 7 August/Tuesday, 8 August – Murder in Marais – Cara Black