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Dead Man’s Footsteps: Material Witness

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Peter James’ Brighton-based crime series seems an odd sort of a place to find a 9/11 story, and it is somewhat sensitive territory for a “stranger” to cover. Only now are many New York authors finding their voice on that most harrowing of days.

But James, writing the fourth in the increasingly popular Roy Grace series, skilfully uses the chaos and tragedy of Ground Zero as a plot device, recounting a version an oft-told 9/11 tale that has become a blend of fiction and myth since: a man close to the scene recognises the destruction of the World Trade Centre as an opportunity to fake his own death in it, allowing him to leave his troubles in Manhattan and rebuild his life elsewhere.

The man in question is Brighton chancer Ronnie Wilson, in New York to pursue a last ditch opportunity to save himself and his business interests with a “can’t miss” scheme he is going to pitch to a wealthy friend and business associate who has an office on the 87th floor of the tower.

Wilson’s moments on the pavements around the World Trade Centre are a compelling study in selfishness and desperation. As others run away from the first stricken tower, he ploughs forward clinging to the suitcase and briefcase that contains his last chance. Even as he digests and understands what he sees happening around him, there exists in him the hope that somehow his meeting can still go ahead. Until the first tower crashes down and he finally flees for his (now officially worthless) life.

But human beings are inventive and ruthless and as Wilson contemplates his lucky escape later in the day – although he still can’t bring himself to think of himself as anything but unlucky, “why did it have to happen today?” – he sees that it might actually be a blessing and he hatches a callous plan to bury his failures in the wreckage of Ground Zero.

The horror of 9/11 is one of four story strands in the set up zone early in the book. In Brighton, in the present day, Roy Grace has his weekend ruined by the discovery of a decaying corpse in a lost storm drain. Elsewhere in the City, a young woman living a secretive lonely life is subjected to a terrifying ordeal in a lift. Meanwhile in Australia, another body turns up, this one in the trunk of a car submerged in a river.

Grace and his team begin to find links everywhere between these seemingly unconnected events and quickly they are scattered around the world in search of the vital clues that will piece the story together.

As ever, James shows he is highly adept at maintaining several plot strands at once and keeping the story moving at a good pace. Amateur sleuths in the readership are given enough clues to run their own shadow investigation as the plot boils up nicely to a dramatic finish. The writing is crisp and the characterisation very good. Grace is an everyman copper with a sure common touch and the ability to lead sympathetically those beneath him in the hierachy. His frustrations with bureaucracy and the political games of some of his superiors add satisfying irritation to the stories.

I do have one criticism of this book, and it is the reappearance of the “missing wife” story – Grace’s wife Sandy disappeared without trace or explanation some years previously. In the last book,Not Dead Enough, Grace treks off to Munich to investigate a possible sighting – this worked well as Grace’s anxiety and confusion, and his desire for closure was convincing.

Here, the oleaginous Cassian Pewe, Grace’s new rival in Sussex CID decides to try to score points on Grace by reopening the investigation into Sandy’s disappearnce on the sly. It all feels a bit forced and to be honest was somewhat tedious. I wonder if James somehow felt the same, because it also felt a bit half-hearted, a disjointed side show.

Still, that apart, this is another strong outing from Grace and James and is sure to be a summer winner.