Written by Conrad Williams — Dust and Desire marks the entry into crime fiction for this British author best known for his work in the horror and dark fantasy fields. Subtitled a Joel Sorrell novel, it is the first of three to be published by Titan Books.
Sorrell is a private investigator working in London on the kinds of cases an ex-cop, one-man operation gets. So, it’s divorces, a little bit of identity theft, and other seedy work that doesn’t pay well. He is referred a client from an ex-con acquaintance, Barry Liptrott, whom he normally would have nothing to do with. The client, a freelance journalist originally from Liverpool called Kara Geenan, wants Sorrell to find her missing brother, 18-year-old Jason Phythian. Sorrell is minded not to take the case because there is too much wrong with it. The boy has only been missing overnight, and Geenan doesn’t seem at all affected emotionally by her brother’s disappearance. But money is money and Sorrell starts looking the next day.
Having been given a list of places Phythian might be found at, Sorrell tries his flat. There are signs of a break in, and inside the detective is coldcocked from behind without ever finding his assailant. Sorrell is interviewed in hospital by an ex-colleague from the force, Mawker, who wants to know what he was doing at the flat of Gary Cullen, a mentally ill small-time offender who escaped from Summerhead hospital in Liverpool six weeks ago.
It’s clear to Sorrell that Geenan has lied to him and he intends to find out why. When he can’t find her he sets about looking for the ex-con Liptrott instead. A couple of days later he finds him, having been summoned to a flat by Mawker. Liptrott has been gutted, and the time of death suggests it was not too long after Sorrell and Keenan met. A contact in the force lets slip that the Met are worried about a possible serial killer as there was a similar case, which remains unsolved, in Liverpool five years ago. It’s the worst possible news for Sorrell because it means he will have to return to the city he grew up in and couldn’t wait to leave.
Once Sorrell gets to Liverpool the missing pieces in the case starts falling into place. It turns out there is a personal connection to the case for him, but we won’t spoil it here.
I don’t know if Williams is just a very talented writer or if he’s spent a lot of time getting familiar with the private eye genre – probably a bit of both. He has mastered it first time out. Sorrell is a brilliant creation who ticks all the boxes necessary for the classic PI but is also something new. He’s a somewhat embittered ex-cop with a fondness for drink matched by a dislike for authority and the straight world. His cynical outlook hides an empathy for his fellow man, and he has a tragic past.
However he’s not so much a hard case as a hard-done-to case, preferring to let his impressively creative insults fight his battles rather than his fists. There is a vulnerability to him which he can’t hide, try as he might. He is easy to like, and crucially, easy to believe in.
There is a strong sense of place in Dust and Desire which grounds the story and helps with the occasional coincidence of the plot. Sorrell moves through the backstreets and pubs of London, mostly at night, and we feel as though we are travelling by his side.
There are other notable characters. Sorrell forms a tender relationship with his cat’s vet, somebody I hope we will see more of, and the murderer is a fascinating figure whose motivation and rise up through the Liverpudlian criminal ranks we discover as the book progresses. Williams is too smart a writer to give us everything and Geenan remains a mystery.
British crime fiction is as strong as ever, with some outstanding efforts published in the last few years. That said, none can hold a candle to Dust and Desire, and it’s a thrill and a privilege to sing its praises far and wide. Books as good as Dust and Desire don’t come along often so don’t miss it.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars