Now in his fifth outing, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is entering somewhat dangerous territory for serial coppers. It is at this stage that many series go awry as the vitality and freshness that sustains new series can start to drain away and familiarity begin to breed contempt.
But fans of Peter James need no have fear of that. In Dead Tomorrow, James has delivered his annual summer blockbuster, chasing away the mid-series blues with a stark and disturbing plot focused on the underground trade in organ trafficking.
The key to every good series is the leading man (or woman, obviously) and James’s notable success in developing one of the UK’s most popular police series is Roy Grace, the decent everyman of crime fiction. Grace feels very much like the sort of bloke you’d enjoy going the pub with a quick pint after work. He doesn’t suffer from any of the social diseases associated with fictional cops. No alcholism, misogyny, psychological disorders. He doesn’t have any general problem with authority figures, only with certain officers. Instead he is stable, reliable, sensitive, thoughtful and hard-working. Just the sort of police officer you’d want on your side. He does have a bit of a class chip on his shoulder but that’s about it.
But what James shows is that life can quite dramatic enough without all the behavioural problems so beloved of crime fiction writers. Grace deals with office politics, the near breakdown of a friend and the dilemma of parenthood so well known to many who work long hours that keep them away. If this does not sound as explosive as a 24 hour drink and drug fuelled bender followed by the violent pursuit of perps, well perhaps it is not, but it is no less interesting for that and is refreshingly grounded in reality.
None of which, however, is of much relevance without a great narrative running through it, and James has one. Dead Tomorrow ties the desperation of a mother with a daughter suffering acute liver disease to the vulnerable street kids of Bucharest through the despicable and yet burgeoning continental trade in human organs.
When a dredger uncovers the body of a young man on the sea bed just of the Sussex coast, Grace is called in to investigate a crime that offers no clues other than an empty body cavity where major organs should reside. At first he and his team are baffled about how and why it got there, but when similar corpses are uncovered it is clear they are dealing with the systematic murder of young people and the harvesting of their organs for sale. The investigation becomes a desperate race against time to save the lives of young people known to be in transit towards Brighton and death on the operating table.
What elevates this beyond mere airport bookstore beach-reach fodder into a fascinating and gripping read is a multi-viewpoint narrative that locks into the motives and aspirations of the various players in the drama: the fear and desperation of the mother of a dying child, prepared to go to any length to save their child; the desire of homeless orphans to find themselves a better life cleaning hotel rooms or serving cocktails in England and their consequent vulnerability to those making promised to help them fulfil such dreams; the self-justification, moral abdication and naked greed of surgeons and traffickers who tell themselves that the life of a middle class, paying customer is worth more than that of a Romanian vagrant.
Each of these gives Dead Tomorrow depth, vitality and a purpose that extends beyond entertainment. This is a compelling and occasionally emotionally demanding novel and a worthy addition to a fine series.