The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation – David Thoreau
There are many litmus tests for a good crime novel and these are mine:
Was I hooked from the very beginning?
Did I want to finish the book without feeling it was a chore?
Was the book well-paced?
Does the locale act as an unspeaking but textural presence?
Did I have a sense of unease after I finished the final page?
and was I left wanting more?
Taunting the Dead racks up a 6/6 on all these counts.
And then some.
Set in the English city of Stoke-on-Trent, this novel introduces the reader to Detective Sergeant Allie Shenton. The opening chapter does not delay in sinking its narrative hooks in its realistic description of an unnamed woman, unhappily drunk, who staggers around a pub car-park late at night, shouting for her friend from whom she seems to have separated from.
A friend who she will never see again.
She moved a little further into the darkness is one of many smart and poetic touches that the author uses to presage the fate of the character at hand.
Here, the name of Terry Ryder is not as much introduced but yelled at us. Terry Ryder forms a central plank to the novel from the start right to the very end. A seemingly respectable property developer with fingers in pies in the underbelly of Stoke, Ryder is also a ruthless gangster at the head of a major social security fraud and drug dealing.
He seems to have it all. The money, the house, the car, the clothes, the charm and of course the women, everyone in town is taken in by him. Everyone that is except DS Allie Shenton and the local police force.
Shortly after the death of the woman in the car park, we move onto what seems to be a cut and dry murder of another woman at the hands of her junkie husband in a downbeat part of town. It is this murder that sets off an unstoppable chain of events that brings the police investigation in collision with the dark shady world that Ryder and his family and henchmen inhabit.
Stoke is not the usual setting for crime writing it must be said but it’s the author’s hometown and her knowledge of its streets and vernacular gives a sense of realism and authenticity to the characters, their interplay and language. This is one extra reason why the novel works so well. Of course novels are often set in towns and cities that the author has no direct first-hand knowledge of but in such cases, extra care must be taken in making sure authenticity is not sacrificed on the altar of expediency of narrative.
Ryder is married to the alcoholic Stephanie and father to the spoilt Kirstie. They have friends and associates but scratch the surface, one soon finds out that there is little familial love or even real friendship amongst those who live in the glittering darkness of unhappiness in luxury. Rather they seem to cling to one another like life-buoys of bones whose flesh of any original love, has long since rotted away. Dysfunction, betrayal, banality and the mundane run through the main protagonists’ lives like tired blood.
Forget clandestine meetings in swanky wine-bars or high powered shady dealings in the sunshine. Here is a land of Wetherpoon’s pubs filled with people with no future and some too young to have any past glories to cling to. Ryder’s Row, the nickname for the infamous Georgia Road, is a road many people in the UK and Ireland can recognize. A road in which the forgotten underclass live in varying degrees of desperation and squalor, caught in a cycle of welfare dependency, fraud, delinquency and drug abuse- in houses that are in the hands of few or even one person. In this case, Ryder’s. A shadowy land occasionally brightened up by the sirens of ambulances and police squad cars which visit on a dismal regularity of futility.
The sense of economic and societal decay, while by no means overbearing, does hang in the background off this book. Restaurants and high class boutiques share high-street space with charity shops and Poundlands. This is the texture, the bleak canvass upon which Mel has painted a wonderfully paced story and cleverly constructed plot that is largely based on a chance for a small business man to clear his debts but only for this Faustian pact to unravel in tragedy for all concerned.
DS Allie Shenton is a former social worker who joined the force after her sister Karen was raped and left for dead fourteen years earlier. Despite surviving, Karen suffered brain damage and needs round the clock care. Her attacker was never found despite the best efforts of their parents, who seemed to die premature deaths not long after.
The ending of the novel is a master-class of careful, cleverly and seamless weaving of the narrative strands that came into being at different points from earlier in the novel but there is a twist, a dark and totally unexpected one that is quite breathtaking and chilling and leaves the door open for a much anticipated sequel.
DS Allie Shenton however, is not without faults and not immune to the charms of Ryder. While not giving into them, she does entertain them and therein, we see the seeds for perhaps future problems for her in novels to come. Her hearts in the right place and knows right from wrong but she is just about able to check her animal passions. Will she in the future? We’ll see.
In conclusion, this is a wonderful novel and I recommend it thoroughly. Novels need not be set in London, New York or LA. I recognized the characters, the pubs they went to, the restaurants they ate at, the quiet desperation and high drama that, ironically, only acute ordinariness can engender.
Did I unwittingly have a drink next to a henchman of one of the many Terry Ryders that perhaps every British town has?
You can buy Taunting the Dead on Amazon here
Mel’s website is: http://www.melsherratt.co.uk/
Mel’s blog is: http://highheelsandbookdeals.blogspot.com/
And on Twitter she is: @writermels