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Dead Man’s Time: Crime Thriller Fella

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We mentioned earlier in the week, CSI Portsmouth, an event taking place tomorrow that looks at the way forensic science impacts on crime writing. Forensic technology and scene-of-the-crime resources seem to be evolving at a bewildering rate.

If you’re writing a police procedural can be difficult to know how much of that stuff to put in. You don’t want to overload your novel with detail which enslaves your detective to procedure, but you want it to be authentic. Well, here’s a fellow who gets the balance right.

Peter James’s latest Detective Superintendent Roy Grace novel is now out in paperback, and here’s the blurb:

Some will wait a lifetime to take their revenge… A vicious robbery at a secluded Brighton mansion leaves its elderly occupant dying. And millions of pounds’ worth of valuables have been taken.

But, as Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, heading the enquiry, rapidly learns, there is one priceless item of sentimental value that the old woman’s powerful family cherish above all else. And they are fully prepared to take the law into their own hands, and will do anything, absolutely anything, to get it back.

Within days, Grace is racing against the clock, following a murderous trail that leads him from the shady antiques world of Brighton, across Europe, and all the way back to the New York waterfront gang struggles of 1922, chasing a killer driven by the force of one man’s greed and another man’s fury.

James has made authenticity research the backbone of his novels, but it never overpowers the narrative in Dead Man’s Time, perhaps because the book is as much the story of 95-year-old Gavin Daly, a man who has been haunted all his life by the disappearance of his father from his Brooklyn tenement way back in 1922, as it is Roy Grace’s ninth outing.

In fact, despite despite the numerous references to forensic podiatrists and SOCOs and interview techniques, the research impacts on the story in small but eye-opening ways. For example, in the way known villains are monitored at football stadiums and how expensive new cars are often fitted with trackers that can be used to trace their journeys.

Nine books along, the reader’s relationship with Brighton copper Roy Grace is super-comfortable. He’s an Everyman detective. A team-player, dependable, a manager who is supportive of colleagues – I love his curiosity about the possibility of two mismatched coppers on his team having an secret relationship – with a wife and kid and a dog and a goldfish.

But the villains provide a satisfyingly ruthless edge to the proceedings, and there’s a putrid undercurrent of good old-fashioned seaside nastiness when a vile old nemesis makes his move against Grace’s wife and child.

What you’re always going to get with James is a super-smooth ride. The Grace novels unfold in short, more-ish chapters, which rest in plenty of white space – to me, white space is an underrated component of any good novel. There’s a purring engine beneath the bonnet of this book.

And, if there’s a slight inevitability about the destination – Gavin Daley’s desire to retrieve a rare Patek Philippe watch and to finally solve the mystery of his father’s death is resolved in an emotionally satisfying way – then there’s much to admire about the way James structures his plot along the way, pulling all disparate threads of the narrative together into a satisfying whole. It’s a big ask of any author to weave into a modern-day story the murder of a man who took place in the violent, gang-infested blocks of Brooklyn a lifetime ago, and James pulls it off with aplomb.

What I liked: As a writer it’s your job to make even the most minor of characters come alive, and James does that with a few deft strokes. For example, a hulking henchman character is introduced as The Apologist because of his habit of saying sorry after dishing out the most-violent of beatings. It’s simple tics and habits and quirks of personality that can really bring a character vividly alive.