The Search is the third in Howard Linskey’s police procedural series featuring Detective Ian Bradshaw and investigative journalists, Tom Carney and Helen Norton. Set in the North East in mid 1990s they also frequently involve crimes that have been committed at some earlier date, partly because Tom and Helen have built up a reputation for finding missing people. The Search is no exception, focusing initially on the disappearance, and presumed murder, of ten year old Susan Verity during the long hot summer of 1976. Vanishing while playing with five friends, the cause of Susan’s disappearance has variously been ascribed to such different suspects as a local bad tempered farmer annoyed by the children playing in his barn and a convicted serial child killer, Adrian Wicklow, who was reported to be in the area on the day in question. Wicklow, in jail for the deaths of three other children, has admitted to her murder only to then retract his confession. Now he is dying, and DS Ian Bradshaw is dispatched by his DCI to see if he can be persuaded to finally say one way or the other whether he was involved in Susan’s death and also to give up the burial sites of his three known victims. This is not something that Bradshaw embarks on willingly, but having built up something of a reputation for tenacity in the face of the odds and also being something of a loner within the force, he appears to his superior to be the obvious choice. The task is formidable on two fronts. Firstly, Wicklow is known for playing psychological games with those who attempt to get him to admit the truth and secondly, the amount of paper work that has amassed over the Verity case is substantial, but it needs to be search through to see if anything vital has been missed. With the reputation of police officers considerably higher up the tree than either Bradshaw or his DCI at stake, Ian is allowed to bring in Tom and Helen, who have worked with the police before, to go through the case files. Helen, particularly, has an eye for detail, which will help the investigation and she and Carney hope to benefit by eventually having a story to sell to the national press.
One obvious starting point in the search for what happened to Susan, is to talk again to the other five children who were playing with her that day. However, when they begin to ask around locally the investigators find that with good reason they are now known as the cursed. Michelle has died of breast cancer, Andrea is living a lonely life in an isolated coastal town, Billy, unable to hold down a job, spends his days roaming from one pub to the next, Kevin, has had a breakdown at the age of sixteen and never really recovered and even Danny, who on the surface is settled with a good job and happy family life, has tragedy in his more recent past when a previous girlfriend died in a climbing accident. Whatever has happened to Susan, none of them has escaped the fallout of that summer day.
Running parallel to this story is a second also to do with a missing girl. As a result of what appears to be a chance encounter, Tom finds himself involved with Lena, a young woman searching around the North East for her missing sister, Jess, who is apparently on the run from what Lena describes as ‘bad men’. Personally, I found it hard to believe that Tom would have been taken in by what seems a flimsy story at best, but suffice it to say that at the time it isn’t his brain he is thinking with. The two stories together, however, do make clear the extent to which any investigation, whether carried out by police or journalist, can be derailed when those most closely involved deliberately lie to further their own ends.
One very serious question which Linskey raises in this novel is that of what motivates a killer. Wicklow is only prepared to give Bradshaw the information he seeks if the detective can work out from the murderer’s self-indulgent memoirs what pleasure he derives from the act of killing and specifically of killing children. And, when the killer of Susan Verity is finally identified, that individual is clear sighted enough to recognise not only the source of the pleasure they gain from the act of murder, but also the implications of that for their life going forward, subsequently taking action to ensure that they can never do such harm again.
In Ian, Helen and Tom, Howard Linskey has given us three people who, as far as their positions in their chosen professions and, indeed, in their social lives, are concerned, are irritating misfits. They aren’t good at conformity or bowing down to what is expected of them by the powers that be. Together, however, they form a satisfying whole, a partnership that I find completely convincing and I am looking forward to the next book in the series, The Chosen Ones, due out next June.