Written by Wendy Cartmel — A soldier sharpens his knife on a whetstone. He says a silent prayer to his God. And then he commits an act of appalling savagery. But this is not Afghanistan, or Iraq. It is the garrison town of Aldershot. Sergeant Major Tom Crane, of the Military Police Special Investigation Branch is called in to investigate. He is faced with what appears to be a horrific but random murder/suicide. His commanding officer is very concerned that the case should not be linked to the soldier’s recent service overseas, and Crane is happy to oblige, as he suspects that the reason for the deaths lies closer to home, and is far more sinister.
As Crane begins to investigate the activities of a local charismatic church he becomes aware of similar tragedies at the two other great garrison towns – Catterick and Colchester. He finds few allies in his search for the truth, but then he enlists the reluctant help of the regimental padre and a local police detective. At home, all is not well between Crane and his wife Tina. His frequent absences and obsession with the case cast a pall over their present and future happiness. Crane knows he is missing something important, and it is only when he realises that one of the keys to unlocking the case is actually in his own office that a clear picture begins to emerge. The padre goes missing, and events start spiralling beyond Crane’s control.
I am not sure if the present tense narrative used in Steps to Heaven is entirely effective, but at least it was consistent, apart from one or two minor lapses. There were moments when tighter editing and proof-reading would have been useful, such as the moment when “the syntaxes in his brain started to pop”. This is not a book where significant clues are put in front of the reader at the same time as they are revealed to the police, so for a good part of the book, we are as much in the dark as Crane and his colleagues. The fly-on-the-wall accounts of the deaths are vivid, but quite disturbing, given that there is always a child involved. The finale was certainly dramatic, but your enjoyment of it will depend on how finely tuned your plausibility radar is.
The novel is as solid, straightforward and as lacking in pretension as Tom Crane himself. I found it clunky and awkward in places, but despite this, I kept turning the pages because I cared about the victims and those who sought the truth surrounding their deaths. This may sound like faint praise, but in these days where there is a veritable avalanche of self-published crime fiction, this book has qualities not to be sneered at. Tom Crane is not the most instantly likeable of central characters, but the book is the first in a series, and so he may mellow as we get to know him better. I doubt that it will still be read in 50 years’ time, but for the here and now, and for less than a pound on Kindle, this is well worth having a look at.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars