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Ragdoll, Daniel ColeWritten by Daniel Cole — Rag dolls are harmless toys, right? Something for your kid to cuddle up with in bed or to chuck out of the buggy at tantrum time. After reading this book, you’ll never look at them in the same way again.

Perhaps the strange truncation of the two words into one for the title should have set off alarm signals (and not just for bad spelling). It certainly makes the cover stand out, as does the sparse design. No shadowy silhouettes looking into the distance here, just a few spots of blood and a strange, looping needle and threat, reminiscent of a doodle on a pad.

It’s there to lull you into a false sense of security; do NOT be fooled. Things start calmly enough, with a prologue focusing on a juror on a high-profile trial at the Old Bailey. It is, literally, the day of judgment and after hours of deliberation the jury can only come to a majority verdict about the Cremation Killer, the man the police say is responsible for the death by incineration of 27 female prostitutes in 27 days.

But Naguib Khalid is found not guilty, and what happens next offers a first glimpse into the off-kilter plotting skills of the talented debut author Daniel Cole. As Khalid smiles in relief, Met Police detective William Oliver Layton-Fawkes – called Wolf by friends, colleagues and the press – jumps into the dock and begins a ruthless assault of the defendant. It’s an act that will have massive repercussions.

Move on four years and Wolf has been re-instated to the force after a period in a mental institution. He is divorced and has recently moved into a crummy flat in an unfashionable part of the capital, where he is living out of boxes and sleeping on a mattress on the floor. An early-morning call sends him running to a crime scene, dressed in an old T-shirt and brightly patterned swimming shorts, much to the bemusement of the forensics team. His clothes are still in one of the boxes, and the crime has happened in the block opposite to his. What Wolf finds there changes his life forever.

The dead body is suspended puppet-like by myriad wires, hand pointing out of the window. To Wolf’s apartment. And that’s not the only chilling link to our strange detective, because the body bears the face of Wolf’s old enemy, Naguib Khalid – which is odd, because Khalid is banged up in prison, finally caught in the act and given his just deserts.

I said the face, didn’t I? And that was no slip of the flying fingers – because this is not the scene of one murder, but six. The ‘body’ is a composite of six dead people, stitched together, rag doll style, and apart from the obvious first victim, the police are at a loss as to the identities of the others.

Thus begins an inquiry of mammoth proportions, but as the owners of the body parts are uncovered one by one, the connection between them seems unclear. Then a hotshot local TV reporter receives an horrific message from the killer. He has a list of the people who will be next to die, and reveals the date each will be dispatched. As the reporter in question is Wolf’s ex-wife, Andrea Hall, it is in her interest to share it – especially as the final name on the list is Wolf himself…

This is a book like no other I’ve ever read, boasting a central character with more layers than an onion. Wolf is an enigma – unpredictable, troubled, infuriating, funny, personable and driven. But, with his history, is he to be trusted? Cole marries the dark and desperate with flashes of laugh-out-loud humour to lighten the load. It’s been called the most talked-about debut of 2017 and I’m more than happy to join the conversation. My favourite debut novel since Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing.

If you find the composite victim concept interesting, you can also try Jigsaw Man by Helen Forbes.

Trapeze Books

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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