The Embalmer by Alison Belsham

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The Embalmer by Alison Belsham front cover

Life is full of tiny, inconsequential slights and disappointments. They pass by in the blink of an eye and are forgotten just as quickly – for most people, that is. A tiny minority take such things to heart and let them fester into something out of all proportion, using such setbacks as the foundation to something decidedly… dastardly. It certainly applies to The Embalmer, a strange, shadowy figure who is determined to get his revenge on a disparate group of people in Brighton. And WHAT a revenge he has planned!

The title gives a pretty big clue as to how this killer operates, but the phrase ‘the devil is in the detail’ certainly rings true here. Because Alison Belsham’s creation is a follower of the gods of Ancient Egypt – in particular Apophis, known as the Great Serpent and appropriately enough the god of chaos. So his first victim is mummified using traditional methods that are a little off the wall for modern-day sensibilities. In fact, The Embalmer starts off with detailed instructions on how to do the job authentically, and it’s definitely an eye-opener.

The killer’s first victim is found in the Booth Museum of Natural History, inside a glass case that usually displays an array of stuffed birds. At first glance it looks like an ancient Egyptian mummy, accompanied by three clay pots, the tops of which form the heads of animals. But the bandages are too white, too pristine, and the museum’s assistant curator wasn’t expecting a new exhibit. A Halloween prank? DI Francis Sullivan, called to the scene, thinks not… and when examination of the jars reveals their grisly contents, possibly human, the investigation steps into full swing. Oh, and the curator of the museum is missing too — this is all shaping up into a complicated case.

As if Sullivan hasn’t got enough to keep him occupied, Marni Mullins is in custody, accused of the murder of her husband. Fans of this series know all about the strange relationship between Sullivan and Marni, and it is destined to take a central role in this book too, with the DI making some fairly dubious decisions as he tries to prove the tattooist’s innocence. There are times when this to-ing and fro-ing gets a little jarring, messing with the narrative flow which makes for frustrating reading.

The Embalmer takes flight when our shadowy killer is given the floor, and the chapters revealing his innermost thoughts and motivation are telling and disturbing in equal measure. He’s a grotesque character and wonderfully rendered – you wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night, or in bright sunshine for that matter! Meanwhile, as the case trundles on and Sullivan becomes mired in his own self-recrimination, it becomes difficult to sit firmly in his camp. I really warmed to this character when he was introduced in The Tattoo Thief, but along the way the buttoned-up, god fearing, by the book detective has morphed into yet another troubled soul. Marni? Well she never changes, she’s always been tough and uncompromising and now she’s in deep doo doo. And that fact that she spends much of this book in jail means there’s little of the working with Sullivan that made the previous novels in this series so readable, which is a pity.

Alison Belsham is adept at creating a sense of place, and some of Brighton’s lesser-known areas are vividly created here – as well as a dramatic scene at one of the city’s best loved locations that’ll have you on the edge of your seat. There’s much to enjoy in The Embalmer but as the book ends there are hints that this mismatched partnership may have run its course. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

Brighton in the 1950s features in Sara Sheridan’s Russian Roulette. Tattoos play a part in Original Skin by David Mark.


CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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