Written by Carol Wyer — Carol Wyer arrived on the crime fiction scene just over a year ago, and since then readers have been treated to five books featuring Staffordshire DI Robyn Carter. Now the author has created a new central character for another series of police procedurals and in The Birthday we meet DI Natalie Ward.
Like Carter, Ward is a woman who puts her career first, but unlike Carter, our new acquaintance is married and has a family to consider. Husband David is a freelance translator and works from home, taking on the cooking and child rearing duties while his wife works her cases. They have two teenagers – Josh, 15 and 13-year-old Leigh – and an added complication is David’s gambling addiction, which almost brought the family to grief and is still a bone of contention between the pair.
But although we discover much about the Ward family as this book progresses, it is a particularly perplexing case that takes centre stage. The Birthday opens in 2015, in a garden centre where a raucous children’s party is being held. Ella Townsend, the centre’s owner has a blinding migraine and leaves two members of staff in charge as she goes in search of tablets to relieve the pain. There are 20 five- and six-year-olds enjoying the fun as she departs – or so she thinks. Upon her return only 19 remain. Little Ava Sawyer has vanished.
Two years later, construction staff working on the site of the former garden centre make a chilling discovery. It’s Ava’s body, and as Ward and her team from Sanford Police HQ survey the scene it’s difficult to know where to start their investigation – could the trail be any colder?
Ward is a newcomer to Sanford, arriving only recently in north Staffordshire after a case she was involved in while working in Manchester went badly wrong. A 13-year-old who disappeared was eventually found murdered and Ward is still thinks that mistakes in the investigation played a part in the girl’s death. Her feelings of guilt make her all the more determined to find Ava’s killer. When another little girl disappears and is found dead the pressure ratchets up several notches. Audrey Briggs knew Ava, she was even at the birthday party where Ava vanished. Now she, too, is dead. And chillingly, her body has been dressed in a yellow party frock, just like Ava was wearing on that fateful day.
The action is interspersed with chapters from an anonymous source, someone who is a loner, obsessed with a fellow pupil at school and is now obviously grown up and targeting young girls. Who is he? You’ll find yourself studying every male questioned by Ward and her team, trying to work out who the culprit is. Wyer has already shown great skill in the art of police procedurals, and the investigation inches forward slowly as the killer becomes more and more unhinged. Who can he be? The answer may surprise you.
You can rely on Carol Wyer to come up with a sneaky cul-de-sac or two as the story progresses. Her settings are spot on and her dialogue has an air of authenticity, but the plot itself posed a question or two – why aren’t the people of Sanford more concerned for the welfare of their children when little girls are being murdered? Why are there no press in evidence to ramp up public concern? Also, there’s little here to separate Ward herself from the myriad other fictional police officers who juggle work and family. She’s not as instantly likeable as Robyn Carter. However, it’s early days for this new creation and I have a feeling Ward may have a skeleton or two in the cupboard, ready to be revealed in future outings!
CFL Rating: 3 Stars