In the spirit of honesty and transparency for which I am justly famous, I declare that I know and like Brighton where, because of family connections, I spent many happy times in the 1970s and 1980s. For the avoidance of doubt, the PR department of Brighton and Hove City Council has not offered me a free stay at a local hotel or even a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s for saying nice things about Brighton as described in Dead Man’s Grip by Peter James (Minotaur Books, 2011). You must assume the setting of this thriller is irrelevant to my views on the merits of the book and I confirm Brighton is an essentially safe place to visit. Don’t be influenced by Graham Greene’s novel, Brighton Rock, or stories about more dangerous times. There are no hitmen stalking the streets in the hope of gunning down local solicitors, white van drivers and anyone else you might think deserving of death.

I picked this up with some degree of curiosity. I read most of the novels published by Peter James in the 1980s but, for some reason, never continued after Possession. I can’t remember why. With so little time and so many books to read, I tend to be a little capricious, chopping and changing which authors I choose to follow. I suppose he was the victim of one of my more arbitrary culls. So, when the chance to review Dead Man’s Grip came along, I jumped at it to see how a previously favoured author was fairing. For those who like statistics, this is the seventh in the series featuring Roy Grace and it represents a quite remarkable read. The first impression comes through the prose which is stripped down and elegantly economical. This is such a pleasing style, never wasting a word and, more importantly, always pushing the story on. We have a multiple point of view opening where we watch the pivotal traffic accident build up to the sad outcome as the young American student dies under the wheels of an articulated lorry. Then the narrative ripples outwards as if a stone was dropped into a quiet pool. The victim was the son of a family with known Mafia connections. The mother, in particular, is not a happy bunny, having opposed the son’s decision to come to Brighton — normally, one of the safest cities in England, even when it comes to traffic on its busy roads. The fact her son has died cries out for vengeance. So all three drivers involved must die in the most horrific way possible. Only then will she feel some measure of peace.

Once the Mafia connection is recognised, the case is bumped up to Roy Grace who’s head of the Major Crime Branch of Brighton CID. Naturally, he’s cautious and wants to ensure the investigation into the circumstances are seen to be as perfect as possible. He doesn’t want to give the Americans any excuse to start taking matters into their own hands. Unfortunately, the mother’s arrival in England is signalled by the offer of a large cash reward for anyone who identifies the driver of the white van which fled the scene. With this incentive in play, the police investigation runs into problems but, with quiet patience, the investigators come up with a name. Unfortunately, this known criminal has dropped out of sight. At this point, we meet Tooth, who’s one of the more endearing professional hitmen in recent fiction. He specialises in being able to prove the deaths for which he’s responsible, i.e. he plants cameras at strategic points and is able to deliver graphic evidence of the circumstances in which each of his victims dies. This makes him very popular with clients who want to savour their vicarious revenge. Using the Mafia’s underworld connections, Tooth is the first to find the missing driver who’s filmed as his white van slowly falls into the deep-water harbour with his hands superglued to the steering wheel.

This death confirms the risk assessment that the parents might seek revenge. When the driver of the articulated lorry also turns up dead, Roy Grace must offer police protection to the solicitor who was driving the third vehicle. Now it all becomes a race against time. Can the police catch the hitman before he can get to the lawyer? Although there’s necessarily some element of contrivance in the precise details of how the police manage to be in the right place at the right time, I was swept along regardless. This is a terrific read. More importantly, the character of the hitman is described with such a mordent sense of humour, it’s actually a shame he has to come up against a series character like Roy Grace who must, perforce, triumph over “evil” (most of the time).

So, I’m delighted to be able to say Peter James has lost none of the verve which I so admired all those years ago. Anyone who wants a genuine thrill-ride should pick up a copy of Dead Man’s Grip, remembering always that this is a fictionalised version of Brighton which is an essentially safe place to visit. Like Tooth, we don’t do criticism, we only do praise.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.