Written by John Nicholl — A Cold Cold Heart is John Nicholl’s sixth psychological thriller. It sees the return of Detective Inspector Garth (Grav) Gravel for a new case, after he featured in Portraits of the Dead which came out in 2016. And this time the killer is much closer to home.
Gravel is on the trail of a serial killer operating around the fictional town of Caerystwyth, Carmarthenshire in West Wales. When the raped and strangled corpse of another young woman turns up on the bank of a river, Gravel thinks he may have finally got his man. Whereas previously the killer has scrupulously careful, this time he’s left behind some clues. Maybe it’s because he’s been getting careless or over-confident. Gravel arrests Peter Spencer, somebody known to have viciously beaten his wife on more than one occasion and it appears as if the case is closed. But is it?
On the personal side, Gravel’s daughter Emily has moved back to the town after a relationship break-up. She’s managed to get herself a job with a local solicitor, Charles Turner. Gravel is glad Emily is going to be around more. However, it transpires that Turner is representing Spencer in the wife beating case.
Gravel’s relief at having solved the murders also turns sour when another victim is snatched – and this time it’s Emily. The story becomes a race against the clock to find her.
Unfortunately, some of the tension of this novel is broken when one of the characters makes it clear who the perpetrator and his next intended victim are. The author therefore must rely on suspense – is the killer going to get away with it? – to drive the narrative, which is achieved relatively well. The first couple of chapters are used to set up the major players – Gravel, his daughter, Turner and Spencer, so you’ll be a little way into the book before Gravel reveals his actual case, throwing into a conversation that the police are after a serial killer.
Gravel is a decent character, a little different to the usual cop. He’s terribly unfit, politically incorrect (within the police system) and closing in on retirement. In other words, he doesn’t mind who he upsets as long as the job gets done. He has an irritating habit of calling all the female characters ‘love’. It quickly gets wearing.
Interestingly, you will experience the novel unfolding via twin perspectives – via the eyes of the killer and Gravel. As a result there are some rather gruesome and detailed scenes. It is impossible to form a connection with the killer, he’s just too unlikable, without a single admirable trait, so the opportunity for a little nuance and duality is missed. Likewise with Spencer. Despite him being obviously fitted up, something revealed at the outset of the novel, it’s unlikely anyone will sympathise with him. Who could like someone who readily admits to slapping their partner around?
If you like psychological thrillers with a graphic edge and where suspense rather than surprise is prevalent, then this novel should be a good read. Others may feel they’re left a little cold by the story. Although this isn’t Gravel’s first appearance, A Cold Cold Heart can easily be read as a standalone.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars