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Dead Man’s Footsteps : It’s Criminal

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First line: If Ronnie Wilson had known, as he woke up, that in just a couple of hours’ time he would be dead, he would have planned his day somewhat differently.

Failed businessman and perennial loser, Ronnie Wilson is in New York on a last ditch mission to secure funding for his latest venture. His car is about to be repossessed, his credit cards are maxed out, and he’s got an expensive wife back in England. It’s 11th September 2001 and he’s heading to an early appointment in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. A very very bad day has just opened up an undreamed of opportunity for Ronnie.

Six years later, Abby Dawson has just returned home after some years in Australia. She has moved into a luxury flat in Brighton which she has fortified with steel reinforced doors, triple deadlocking, double safety chain, and she keeps pepper spray, a knife and baseball bat within easy reach. To say she is living in fear for her life is an understatement. When she receives a text message on her pay-as-you-go phone saying ‘I know where you are’ her terror reaches new heights.

At the same time, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is investigating the discovery of the skeleton of a woman found in an old stormwater drain unearthed during excavations for a new development. She was apparently strangled.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, another woman’s body is found decomposing in the boot of a car resting on the bottom of a river near Melbourne. She was apparently strangled.

As this brilliantly complex tale moves between Brighton, New York and Melbourne, the threads binding these stories together become more and more tightly woven. Dead Man’s Footsteps is a masterpiece of plotting; it is police procedural at its best, with clue building on clue, and connections being made through a combination of good solid detective work and a little luck.

The 9/11 part of the story was handled factually and sensitively. James did not dwell overly on this part of the story, but there were several short intense chapters that brought back memories of those days we all spent watching the television in disbelief and horror. Initially told from Ronnie’s point of view as a bystander caught up in the chaos of that day, it later also touched on the ongoing effects, physical and mental, on the people of New York, particularly those involved in the rescue effort.

A subplot sees a new Detective Superintendent, Cassian Pewe, previously of the Met, appointed by the Assistant Chief Constable to Brighton and Hove CID. Grace, who has an uneasy relationship with the ACC, isn’t the only one who is unhappy about the appointment, and as he and his colleagues try to find a way to work with this arrogant and ambitious man, it soon becomes clear that Pewe has his own agenda.

Grace and his team of officers are a wonderful mixed bag of personalities of the sort that could be found in almost any workplace. From the rather awful Norman Potting with his sexual innuendos and the exhausted new father Nick Nicholl, to Glenn Branson with his marital difficulties and the Malteser eating Bella Moy, James has created a very believable cast of secondary characters.

Roy Grace is still haunted by the disappearance of his wife Sandy nine years ago, but he has moved on a little. For a start he seems to have given up visiting psychics and mediums in the hope of discovering his wife’s fate. And his relationship with the pathologist Cleo has become quite serious, although it is still threatened by the ever present ghost of Sandy.

The book starts with one of the best first lines I’ve ever read, and it ends with a corker of a last line! Dead Man’s Footsteps is the fourth in the Superintendent Roy Grace series, and I hope there are many more to come.