Written by Jane Isaac — There is a seemingly unquenchable thirst for police procedurals among crime fiction fans, and this one certainly scores high marks for its setting. The graceful river with its swans, the ancient streets and lanes, the half-timbered houses – all would have been familiar to William Shakespeare. But now, four centuries on, Stratford-upon-Avon is the backdrop for as dramatic a tale as The Bard ever penned. A Chinese student, studying at the local college, has a blazing row with her English boyfriend and storms out of a town pub. Min Li is picked up by various CCTV cameras as she angrily walks into the night. And then she disappears.
Detective Inspector Will Jackman already has the murders of two young women on his unsolved list, and his heart sinks when he hears that Min Li has been reported missing. He dreads the thought that she might be found – as with the other girls – like a broken rag doll bobbing up against the bullrushes at the river’s edge. Playing percentages, and assuming that the victim knew her assailant, he takes a keen interest in the boyfriend, Tom. It turns out the young man is actually concealing something from the investigators. When his secret is exposed, however, it is not one that leads the police any nearer to the missing girl.
Eventually, it emerges that a ransom email was sent to Min Li’s parents in China. Perfectly worded in Mandarin, it provokes the family into swift action. By the time the police have drawn breath and gathered their resources the ransom has been provided by the Chinese community in Birmingham, left as per instructions, and collected by an anonymous motorcyclist. Jackman is frustrated by the innate distrust that the Chinese locals have for the police, and his anxiety ratchets up several notches when yet another Chinese student goes missing – this time a boy called Lonny Cheung. The search for a mysterious relative of Min Li leads Jackman away from picture postcard Stratford and into the mean streets, casinos and grimy industrial estates of Birmingham.
The police procedural part of the book hums along nicely. Jackman is clearly a decent bloke, and his difficult family circumstances are described with clarity and empathy. The Warwickshire setting is very persuasive, and the contrast between the real life of a small Midlands town and the face it puts on for its thousands of visitors is cleverly drawn out. I just wonder about the literary device of inserting first person narratives in the voice of Min Li. It works to draw us into the deception intended by her abductor, but in another sense it does rather give the game away. Despite this, it takes a long time to work out where the plot is headed, and the last rites might just be cathartic enough to receive a nod from Shakespeare himself.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, in spite of a sense of misgiving when I found it featured yet another workaholic DI, once more with personal problems and – no surprise – with a tetchy relationship with some of his fellow officers. The only missing tick boxes are ‘maverick’ and ‘drinks too much’. The book isn’t radically different to others in the crowded procedural sub genre, but its narrative brings just enough variety to make it interesting. The final plot twist is very cleverly delayed and more or less plausible. I look forward to the next step in Will Jackman’s career.
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CFL Rating: 4 Stars