The new Roy Grace novel is an exciting, fast, satisfying read. The previous four books in the series featured a left-of-field, imaginative hook, ratcheting up the suspense (such as the stag night that went wrong when the groom was buried in a shallow grave as a prank, and then left and maybe forgotten). DEAD TOMORROW is a more conventional police-procedural novel, and none the worse for that. There are several interlocking plots, which make the most of the Brighton location. Various set pieces are fun, but small details such as noting named, minor celebrities’ houses as two characters drive pass it, are sweet touches.

Lynn Beckett has had a challenging life: she’s divorced, depressed, working in a debt-collection agency, and her daughter Caitlin has advanced liver disease. Lynn becomes desperate near the start of the novel when her doctor reveals that the girl’s illness has reached crisis point and her only hope of survival beyond a few months rests on a liver transplant. Lynn’s ex-husband Mal is a sailor, currently engaged in dredging the sea bed off Shoreham for gravel and other materials for the construction industry. The crew make a gruesome discovery when a body becomes stuck in the dredging pipe. It isn’t long before macabre details come to light about the corpse, that of a teenage boy with a strange tattoo on his arm which might provide a clue to his identity.

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace has lots of cases on his plate, and is working extremely long hours to attempt to keep up – to the slight consternation of his girlfriend, glamorous mortician Cleo. The corpse on the sea bed takes over Grace’s life as a major case, soon acquiring a connection in Romania, where the reader learns of the awful circumstances in which many young, abandoned children are forced to live, scrounging a living on the streets, addicted to drugs, glue or paint-sniffing, living among the central heating pipes under the ground. Criminals masquerading as friends and supporters prey on these waifs and strays, trafficking them for nefarious purposes. Back in England, the story forges on: there are several narratives, each of which has a short chapter devoted to it before the reader is whisked onto the next development. The technique is that of James Patterson, but far more effectively used here to build up suspense in the race to discover what is happening to the Romanian orphans, whether Caitlin will find a liver on the transplant register, or whether the various shady Eurotrash characters will be uncovered by Grace before they dispatch more victims. At the same time, the author does not neglect the personal lives of his characters, as Grace and his friend and colleague Glenn Branson, currently living in Grace’s house because his wife has thrown him out, try to keep their domestic lives together as well as, in Grace’s case, provide the necessary reassurances to his bosses that he’s running a good investigation.

Interest is sustained not only because the plot (in itself not that original) is very well conveyed, but because there are so many vignettes and small observations that add up to make an exciting whole. The team of police who are investigating the case(s) appear in each book and are now gelling as individual characters. There are plenty of small, neat touches – I smiled when one character could not remember what he wrote in an article in Nature – and several in-jokes, such as when the relative merits of two actors who play Ian Rankin’s detective Rebus are briefly mentioned, or when Lynn is reading a Val McDermid novel that contains an apposite scene, or when a minor character has the name Jeffrey Deaver. There are also plenty of hints about Grace’s caseload as well as the continual mystery of what happened to his wife Sandy, who disappeared more than 10 years ago (we learn a little more about that here), to keep him going for many more books.

Since the “retirement” of Rebus and John Harvey’s Resnick’s almost-retirement, Peter James’s Roy Grace is a main contender for the title of crown of UK police detectives. Perhaps Grace will have to fight it out with Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks for the top spot, but I think Peter James’s series is going from strength to strength. Full marks for readability, plot, character, sense of place and, perhaps above all, an attractive sympathy displayed by the author for his many characters, major and minor.