Written by Anya Lipska — The London borough of Walthamstow does not figure highly in the list of the capital’s exotic locations for crime fiction, but it is absolutely perfect for this, the third adventure for Polish investigator Janusz Kiszka and his reluctant counterpart, DC Natalie Kershaw. Kiszka is not exactly a bottom feeder, but Walthamstow’s dowdy thoroughfares – lined as they are with fast food outlets, betting shops and launderettes – make an ideal backdrop for his downbeat lifestyle. He is currently working for an insurance company, but his mind is very much on the fact that his girlfriend Kasia is poised to finally walk out on her waste-of-space husband, and set up house with him.
Meanwhile, Kershaw is trying to put her career back together. Having survived a terrible stabbing, she has switched to the armed response team, but has been suspended from duty after shooting dead a man who was coming at her with a sword. She is trying to work her way through the compulsory psychological assessment when she is drawn in to help Kiszka. He is a worried man, as it seems that on the eve of her life-changing move, Kasia and her husband have both disappeared. Kershaw trawls through the police database for information about Kasia’s husband, Steve Fisher, but leaves her digital footprint all over the place, and is told to stay away from work.
Kiszka learns something from Kasia’s business partner which sends his anxiety right up into the red zone. Incredulous that Kasia would have gone away willingly, he makes his own enquiries, but is shocked when one of his informants – a friend of Fisher’s – hangs himself. This death becomes even more suspicious when a trained and experienced electrician who is also a friend of Fisher’s is reported to have electrocuted himself by drilling through a live cable. A young man at the police mortuary is a great admirer of Kershaw, and she uses the connection to learn that the deaths are both murders. This leads Walthamstow’s odd couple towards a supposedly retired London crime family and – very scarily – the Russian mob.
With the help of an unlikely ally – an elderly Pole living in a retirement home – Kiszka realises that his missing girlfriend is unwittingly caught up in a ruthless fishing expedition by the Russian crime syndicate, and that Kasia is the bait. The fish, in this instance, is a petty crook who has misappropriated a large sum of money, and the mobsters are not particularly bothered who gets hurt along the way.
The writing is out of the top drawer. A Devil Under the Skin is shot through with just enough humour to put the occasional smile on our face, but the underlying darkness of the criminal world is strongly emphasised without gratuitous violence of blood-letting. There are a couple of moments of genuine heartbreak, and we even have a version of the Shakespearian fool in Oskar – Kiszka’s garrulous buddy – who dispenses the occasional nugget of wisdom amid the banter. The strongest part of the story, however, is the relationship between Kiszka and Kershaw. The petite, outwardly vulnerable but steely-willed female is not exactly original in crime fiction, but Lipska has created one of the more convincing examples in Natalie Kershaw. Kiszka’s outward gruffness and muscularity conceals both a very sharp mind and – more importantly – a thoroughly decent and warm hearted personality. We also learn that he is much more likely to be hurt emotionally than physically.
We interviewed Anya Lipska here and you can also read our review of Death Can’t Take a Joke.
The Friday Project
CFL Rating: 5 Stars