Written by Tony Black — He is probably best known as the author of the acclaimed Gus Dury thrillers, set in the mean streets of Edinburgh, but Tony Black has turned his sights to a much less likely setting for Artefacts of the Dead. That setting is the sleepy seaside town of Ayr, where the body of a man is found on the council rubbish tip. He has substantial head injuries, but it’s the wooden spike inserted into his nether regions that give the investigators pause.
Brows furrow further when the victim is identified as James Urquhart, a former investment banker who apparently led a blame-free life and had no enemies. The same description can’t be applied to victim number two. The body of convicted paedophile Duncan Knox has been left at the local racetrack. He, too, has a wooden spike protruding from his rear end. Is there anything else that could link these two, on the surface at least, very different men? That’s the conundrum which faces chief investigating officer DI Bob Valentine as he takes on the case. Sidelined to light duties after a near-fatal stabbing, Bob is begrudgingly called back into action by his Chief Superintendent, who makes it clear from the off that she doesn’t think he’s up to the challenge.
The physical scars are obvious, but the powers that be insist that Bob’s mental health is also important, and arrange regular appointments for him to see a psychiatrist. Unsurprisingly, Bob thinks this is a waste of his time, but as the book progresses we begin to seriously doubt that assumption. Bob is, literally, a haunted man who dreams of a mysterious little girl, wearing a red duffle coat and clutching a bunch of daisies. It is much later on that we learn her identity, in a supernatural twist which, for me, sits at odds to the rest of the story.
Artefacts of the Dead is a tangle of plot strands with Bob Valentine at its very heart. There are times when the police procedural element takes a back seat to his internal monologue; the soul-searching of a man who cheated death twice and is decidedly uncomfortable with the fact. These sections slow the momentum of the story and prove something of a narrative cul-de-sac, whereas I was much more comfortable with the myriad relationships which are very well developed as the tale unfolds. The interactions between Bob and his shopaholic wife, Clare; Bob and his ailing father; Bob and his increasingly unhinged boss and Bob and his new Detective Sergeant – they all add a richness to the story and give it a tinge of realism. Using Ayr as the setting was also an inspired choice by the author. Tawdry, tattered and clinging onto past glories, the little seaside town comes across as a character in its own right.
It’s a tricky investigation, not helped by a mole in the team who is leaking juicy snippets to the press or the fact that Bob himself is beginning to doubt his ability to cope with the ever increasing pressure. He is a decidedly flawed hero and desperately close to breaking point. Can he hold it together long enough to crack the case? This is my first Tony Black book and it was only after I finished it that I discovered Valentine is a new character to the fold. He has so much back story that I felt as if I’d come late to the party and was meeting him mid-series, but it is to the author’s credit that I came to care so much about Bob.
Black and White Publishing
CFL Rating: 3 stars