Written by Paula Lennon — This book is a bit of a curiosity. A debut written by a British commercial lawyer of Jamaican descent who has now moved to the Caribbean, it is the first Jamaican crime novel to be reviewed by Crime Fiction Lover. It manages to fend off the sunny-yet-cosy style of the TV series Death in Paradise, but at the same time refuses to descend into the violent darkness of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings.
For viewers of Death in Paradise, filmed in Gaudeloupe, the set-up will seem familiar. Discredited native detective Raythan Preddy is forced to team up with Scottish cop on secondment Sean Harris to solve the murder of one of the sons and heirs of the Chinese-Jamaican Chin Ellis family’s chilled foods empire. Meanwhile, the victim’s brother has been arrested and assaulted by police for drunk driving. In a country where the wealthy have power and influence over politicians and even the police, this has all the hallmarks of a scandal in the making. It seems that drugs were involved, but just how much did other people know about this? It will be a challenge to keep the Chin Ellis family from interfering in the investigation and the contrast between rich and poor, the corruption at all echelons in society, is well handled. Some of the investigation may seem a little reactive at first, waiting for clues and tip-offs, but there is a nice build-up and a man-hunt towards the end.
This is no ‘Englishman abroad learning to drink and take his tie off’ humorous scenario, although there are a few lighter moments when Sean tries to keep up with the Jamaican Patois spoken by Preddy and his team. Admittedly, the phonetic use of local accent and dialect throughout is excessive to the untrained ear, so Sean does have the reader’s sympathy on this particular matter. In other regards, however, we are not entirely sure whether Preddy can trust him, which adds tension to the story.
The mystery element behind the murder is perhaps not as surprising or highly developed as it could be, as we suspect quite early on who the perpetrator is and there aren’t many other possibilities. However, it is excellent on local colour: the heat, the dust roads, the ganja tea, and the run-down police station contrasting with the luxury hotels. This is Jamaica seen through the clear, unsentimental eyes of a resident rather than a tourist, yet the resident has not become fully jaded and cynical. There is still much to love and admire about the beautiful surroundings and the cultural traditions, but they should not blind us to the grittier underlying picture. Racial tensions, drug culture, violence against women, Chinese immigration to the island are all clearly present and add complexity to what is otherwise a fairly predictable plot.
We are hoping that this will be the first in a series of police procedurals featuring Preddy and Sean in Montego Bay. It certainly has the potential to fill a gap in the market for more realistic crimes and investigators in a setting which could be paradise if we don’t look too closely. This will appeal to fans of crime authors with a social conscience who set their novels in sunny climates and tourist destinations without the sugarcoating, such as India for Kishwar Desai, American Samoa for John Enright, Cuba for Peggy Blair and Mexico for Jonathan Woods. Also see the short story anthology Sunshine Noir.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars