Were you disappointed with a Christmas present you received last year? Was it not quite what you been expecting? Perhaps it was even something that made you feel slightly queasy? Whatever it was, I shouldn’t imagine it had quite the shock value of Barbara Willoughby‘s secret Santa gift, which turned out to be a mug with two severed fingers in it. When two further pairs of unrelated fingers are found, one in a baptismal font and the other on a butcher’s cooked meats counter, Detective Superintendent Jo Nightingale of the Cumbria police seeks support from the Serious Crimes Analysis Section of the National Crime Agency, better known as SCAS or, to readers of MW Craven’s previous two novels detailing their investigations, DI Stephenie Flynn, DS Washington Poe and the indomitable Tilly Bradshaw. Just so we’re clear about this before I go any further, Tilly Bradshaw is my hero. Born with an intellect that would have left Stephen Hawking standing with his mouth open, there is very little that Tilly can’t do with a computer and she absorbs new information at a rate that leaves others gasping, seeing patterns where other people simply see confusion. However, understanding nuance in the real world is not her forte and if a rule seems to be nonsensical then she just walks past it as if it didn’t exist. Can we skip ahead to where we’ve had the argument and I‘ve won but Tilly does what she pleases anyway? asks Stephanie Flynn at one point. And that sums the situation up nicely. When I grow up I want to be Tilly Bradshaw.
As it happens, at the beginning of this investigation Tilly is really the only member of the threesome firing on all cylinders. Flynn is eight months pregnant and Poe still suffering from the aftermath of a bug that sounds almost as if he had managed to contract Covid before anybody else got round to it. Calling in the terrifying pathologist Estelle Doyle to examine the fingers it becomes apparent that not only are they from people who have definitely been murdered but also that they have been removed in three very different ways. Have there been three different murderers? Is it the work of someone who is, as it were, perfecting his trade as he goes along? And how are such apparently different victims being selected? One of the first theories to be considered is that there is only one true victim and the others are being simply randomly selected to muddy the waters. That there is no apparent connection between the three might seem to endorse this.
Then Poe gets a phone call from one Melody Lee, an FBI agent sent to work out in the sticks for having had the temerity to suggest that a young man convicted of murder was in fact set up and that the murder had been committed by someone calling himself the Curator who, for a price, would solve a problem for you, like getting rid of your unwanted business partner, while making sure that the blame could never come back to either you or him. The Curator’s modus operandi consists of involving vulnerable young people in a series of online challenges that start innocently enough but soon escalate into violence. He has, however, chosen his victims well because each of them has some secret that they are desperate is not made public. Although he then goes on to commit the final act of murder himself, they have become the fall guys and he is able to lay the killing at their door because they are terrified of being exposed. The scheme that agent Lee has uncovered in the US has disturbing similarities to the evidence that is slowly coming to light in Cumbria and when a link is finally discovered between the three victims it points to one individual who may well be the ultimate target and the race is on to locate him and to protect him, even though he wants neither.
But is this really the what lies at the heart of the case? Or is this man simply another pawn, to be played and sacrificed in order to manipulate the chessboard to the Curator’s liking so that he can make a final swoop in a completely unexpected direction. And who is the money behind the Curator’s actions? Who is it that has hired him to take out one particular individual? When Poe discovers that, he realises that nothing can ever be the same again.
Craven is, without a doubt, one of the best crime writers around at the moment. His plots are complicated and intriguing. They never go in the direction that you expect them to but they never cross the bounds of believability either. And, while they are frequently very bloody and very disturbing there is also a lightness of touch and an element of humour in his writing that brings moments of relief to what might otherwise be unmitigated horror. As is the case with many police procedural series, there is an ongoing development in terms of the relationships between the different characters and consequently, if you haven’t already met Flynn, Poe and Bradshaw, then I wouldn’t suggest that you start here. Go back and read The Puppet Show and Black Summer, the two preceding novels, and then catch up with this, the latest. You won’t regret the time spent.