Written by Tony Parsons — London copper Max Wolfe first appeared last year in The Murder Bag. Now he returns to track a sadistic killer who has butchered four members of a wealthy family, and kidnapped their youngest child. The family thought themselves secure in their upmarket gated estate, but their sense of wellbeing is proved bloodily misplaced.
The killer has chosen an unusual but effective method to despatch the victims – a slaughterman’s bolt gun. This particular MO has a macabre precedent. Many years earlier, a young gypsy-traveller was courting a farmer’s daughter, but her father and brothers did not approve, and threatened to cool the suitor’s ardour by castrating him. The young man escaped, and exacted his revenge by killing the men one by one with a bolt gun. He was not, as they say, the sharpest knife in the drawer, and was soon arrested and sentenced. Now the years have rolled by and Peter Nawkins is much older and has served his time. Can he have struck again, and if so with what motive? Or has a copycat killer targeted the family and taken their boy?
The investigation leads Wolfe to the anarchic travellers’ site where Nawkins and his family live, but also into a world which couldn’t be more different – the bars and bedrooms of expensive London hotels where a high class prostitution racket caters for those who never have to ask the price of anything. As Wolfe begins to peel back the layers of pretence surrounding the lives of the dead adults in the luxury house, he is sickened to discover a story of child abuse, both historical and very current. Just when the police – and the relatives of the victims – have begun to accept that the abducted boy must be dead, a chance discovery in a Gloucestershire service station sets the game afoot once more.
Parsons made his name with his semi-autobiographical novel, Man and Boy (1999), and the theme of a male parent bringing up a child is never far away in this book. Here, Wolfe’s relationship with his young daughter Scout is at the heart of the narrative. It would be unfair to say that this theme gets in the way, but at the same time you will need to be a passionate dog lover not to be mildly irritated by the constant references to the other significant being in Wolfe’s life – his pet dog.
The action is certainly relentless, explosive and violent. Wolfe himself is improbably resilient to beatings, bottlings and stabbings. No matter how dramatic his punishment, with one bound he is usually free. He even survives burial in a Victorian coffin, complete with its original occupant. Despite the occasional bouts of lurid melodrama, the procedural detail seems accurate and convincing, and there are some excellent descriptions of both Highgate and the atmospheric mileu of Smithfield, complete with Dickensian quotations. The Essex travellers’ site, and the sense of mutual alienation – felt by both the travellers and the local residents – for a suitably bleak backdrop to an all-too-realistic conflict. The ultimate test of a book for a reviewer is this: in a few months time, when the next in the series is made available, will I be badgering the editor for first dibs? My answer is yes, in spite of The Slaughterman’s flaws.
The Slaughterman comes out on 21 May.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars