Written by Neil White — Lawyer by day, crime fiction writer by night, author Neil White almost sounds like a character from a crime fiction novel himself. But he combines the two very well, because White’s legal thrillers certainly have a real ring of authenticity, if Next to Die is anything to go by.
Think John Grisham with a Man-ches-tah accent and you’ll get an the idea of what makes this book so appealing. It is the story of two brothers working on different sides of the law – and I don’t mean goodie and baddie. Joe Parker is a defence lawyer, while his older brother Sam is a police officer.
The book’s blurb describes Sam as ‘Manchester’s most tenacious homicide detective’, which is overstating it a bit, because as we meet him, he is a valued, somewhat deskbound, member of the financial fraud investigations team. That changes when Sam is drafted in to help the Murder Squad, although he isn’t very keen when he discovers they want him to spy on his brother. Because Joe is representing Ronnie Bagley, who is accused of killing his girlfriend and child, and the investigation is going nowhere until they find the bodies.
Meanwhile, there is the small matter of young women who are mysteriously disappearing from the streets of Manchester. At first, there seems to be no connection – but then the pieces fall into place and Sam is once again involved. All of the girls are related to people involved in putting a particularly nasty man into prison – and Sam was Ben Grant’s arresting officer. The scene where he visits Grant in prison is almost Silence of the Lambs-esque in its intensity and creepiness, and Grant is a great villain. But he is behind bars, so who is targeting the girls?
Meanwhile, Joe is playing a blinder by managing to get bail for Bagley – but Ronnie seems surprisingly underwhelmed by his freedom. As Joe and his trainee assistant Monica build up the case for the defence, they begin to realise that there’s something off about the story Ronnie is telling them.
This gripping novel has more tentacles than an octopus. In addition to the plotlines mentioned so far, in the background there’s the murder of Joe and Sam’s sister, 15 years previously. Both men are still badly affected by the loss of Ellie, and their younger sister, Ruby, feels the brunt of it most of all. She wasn’t even born when Ellie was killed, but her life is governed by the sister she never knew. And she’s a teenager, so it goes without saying that she is rebelling against the rules laid down by her family, who are trying to keep her safe.
The legal strands of this book are so lifelike that they seem to leap from the page, and the deep-seated sense of family sets it aside from other thrillers. Sam and Joe may take different views on justice, but when it comes to the crunch they don’t hesitate to back each other up.
Manchester, as the setting, plays an important part too. The final scenes, played out near to one of the city’s best-known landmarks, will have you holding your breath. The final sentences leave the door open for Joe and Sam to return – I hope so, because I’d certainly love to make their further acquaintance.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars