Written by Alison Belsham — It’s just over a year since Alison Belsham introduced us to a decidedly different Brighton-based duo in her debut novel The Tattoo Thief. Buttoned-up, play it by the book young Detective Inspector Francis Sullivan was new to the job and keen to impress his bosses, while hippy dippy tattoo artist Marni Mullins preferred to give the law a wide berth.
They somehow managed to leave behind their differences, share their particular skills and thwart a very nasty serial killer. But what happened next? It’s the height of summer, 2017, and we’re about to find out.
Sullivan is settling into his job, still hampered by the unwelcome interference of his boss DCI Bradshaw, who is always keen to get a case closed, no matter what. It’s a situation made worse by the fact that Sullivan’s second in command DS Rory Mackay is in the boss’s pocket and forever on the lookout for ways to show him in a bad light. So when Tash Brady is attacked and left for dead behind a bandstand on the seafront, Bradshaw and Mackay are keen to push the blame on her boyfriend, Alex Mullins.
On the face of it, it’s not a bad call. Alex and Tash had a very public spat in a nearby nightclub, with Tash leaving alone soon afterwards. And Alex has a very flimsy alibi. Sounds dodgy enough, but Sullivan is not convinced. And neither is Alex’s mother, who is none other than Marni Mullins.
Although Marni and Sullivan seem to be on the same page, their methods are poles apart and this leads to tension and mistrust on both sides. Meanwhile, Tash dies, and it takes a while to discover exactly why. This killer has a very unusual modus operandi, and when victim number two ends up in hospital the race is on for the police. Both girls had wounds cut right through their feet and the palms of their hands and a deep gash in their sides – aping the stigmata of Christ on the cross – and they were also freshly tattooed with verses in Latin, taken from a 17th century piece of choral music.
Their injuries are certainly unusual and Sullivan is convinced that Alex had no part in the murders, even though he knew both victims. The problem is that there are no other suspects and his boss is pushing for a quick clear up. As if that’s not enough, Sullivan has pressing personal issues – his mother, who suffers from MS, is in hospital and nearing the end. Can he hold everything together for long enough to find the real killer?
Belsham paints a convincing and vivid picture of a man close to breaking point, and Marnie Mullins is also buckling under the pressure of having a son in custody, a husband who is anything but reliable, and the reappearance of an ex-lover with his own twisted agenda. Add in the mysterious italicised chapters written by an unknown hand that are scattered throughout this book and you may find it hard to keep up with all the narrative strands.
The teasing passages are set in the 1980s, with an anonymous observer recounting the sordid story of a little girl called Aimie, who is being systematically abused by her father. It’s clear this has a bearing on what’s happening in Brighton in 2017 – but how?
After such an excellent introduction in the series opener, it’s good to have Francis and Marnie back. Sadly, in Her Last Breath there is little of the feeling of togetherness that permeated that first book and the pair spend the majority of their time apart, but getting on each other’s nerves, sniping and arguing when they actually cross paths. I was hoping for the cementing of a headline double act, instead it’s more like they’re splitting up due to artistic differences. Is this an end to the partnership? We’ll have to wait and see, but I’m keen to know what will happen next.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars