Mike Craven certainly knows how to open a novel. The first chapter of Black Summer, from earlier in the Tilly and Poe series, still sticks in my mind and makes me cringe. Dead Ground is the English author’s latest and it features a doozy too. Deep in a hi-tech bank vault, a gang of thieves are searching for a particular safe deposit box. Sounds pretty lame, right? But this bunch are all wearing James Bond masks, each member a different iteration of the suave movie spy. It’s an unusual, and amusing, way to set the ball rolling. What happens next is way out of the norm, too.
So book four gets off to a cracking start, and next we’re treated to a courtroom scene. Sgt Washington Poe is the defendant, and at stake is the home in the Cumbrian dales that he has so lovingly restored. The local council maintains a recent boundary change means it is now inside Lake District National Park – is he going to have to take Herdwick Croft back to the derelict wreck it was when he bought it? Not if the person acting in his defence has anything to do about it… And you may just recognise her.
But soon the case is brought to an abrupt halt, the courtroom is hurriedly left behind and we’re properly up and running. Poe and Tilly’s National Crime Agency (NCA) skills are urgently needed elsewhere.This most mismatched of duos are about to be thrown into a murder investigation that also involves MI5 and the FBI. Fighting crime is a serious business, but followers of this hugely popular series will have plenty to smile about as Dead Ground progresses. Craven is a witty and intelligent writer and there are moments which even produce belly laughs – although that’s not to say that the story isn’t a well-plotted and intriguing prospect.
There’s a high-profile political summit about to be held at a posh but out-of-the-way hotel in Cumbria. Security is high, even though the delegates haven’t even arrived yet, so the death of one of the men tasked with bringing people in and out by helicopter has set all manner of alarm bells ringing. Add in the fact that Christopher Bierman was found in a pop up brothel on the outskirts on Carlisle and he was brutally beaten to death with a baseball bat, and some of the participating countries are getting jumpy. It’s up to NCA analyst Tilly and DS Poe to solve the case – and fast – before some of the political big hitters get cold feet and refuse to attend.
It’s time for Poe, a former soldier, to play nice. But fans of this series know that’s not in his DNA so the scene is set for much butting of heads before he can make any progress. The problem is, some people know more than he does, and they don’t seem too keen on passing along the information. When it becomes clear that this killer has an agenda all their own, it’s time for reluctant cooperation.
It’s good to meet again FBI Special Agent Melody Lee, who played an important part in The Curator, the previous book in this series. There’s an interesting bunch of spook types too, led by Alastor Locke, who has a whiff of the John le Carré about him, and Hannah Finch, who by contrast is an MW Craven creation through and through. As a bonus we get to spend plenty of time in Cumbria – an area beloved by the author, and it shows in the richly atmospheric descriptions. What unfolds is a story of love, duty, shattering betrayal and bloody revenge.
You’ll be led along a convoluted path, via a range of dead ends and spectacular detours, before reaching the finale of this book. A few of them felt a wee bit contrived and overblown, but get past those moments and there are some real gems to be found here too. There’s also a distinct skew on the partnership this time. Poe is given full rein to dig in his heels and bluster before getting the job done, while Tilly takes more of a background role and isn’t so centre stage as usual – which is sad, because their scenes together are always a complete joy to read and I was left longing for more of them. That imbalance took away a little of the previous sparkle of this series.
Dead Ground is not my favourite book in MW Craven’s Tilly and Poe series, but it’s still plenty of fun. An enjoyable, if somewhat frustrating experience.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars