Graham Bartlett’s debut novel Bad for Good gave us a fictional Brighton very different from that of Peter James’ in the Roy Grace novels – grimier, the politics a lot nastier. This corrupt and corroding cityscape is even more evident in his second police procedural, Force of Hate. These streets are mean but so are the airy offices where the sleazy business of city governance is conducted. As a former senior police officer in the Brighton area, Bartlett lived the reality and knows just how to spice it up for his thrillers.
Force of Hate opens in the back of a lorry loaded with migrants who’ve just entered Britain. Ajee has survived the long and dangerous journey from war-torn Syria, including an attempted rape. Now on this last leg of her journey the police have stopped the vehicle and are about to search it. There are only two officers and they are occupied by the driver, so Ajee makes her escape. She winds up on the street, just surviving when someone offers her work, off the books of course. Ajee soon finds the nursing home job is little more than slave labour and is virtually their prisoner.
Meanwhile Chief Superintendent Jo Howe is dealing with the council’s chief executive, Russ Parfitt, who is handing down the latest edicts on policing from the new right wing British Patriot Party, now in power and demanding political policing. First they want to outlaw travellers from the city. Jo fights back, pointing out the police are there to enforce existing laws not create new ones on the hoof. The BPP think their whims should be policy but Jo gets very little support from her boss, the Chief Constable Stuart Acers. Is he spineless or corrupt?
Racial tension and violence are being stirred up in the city. Things ramp up when a small group of neo-Nazis set off an explosion at a gypsy site, killing a couple of residents and injuring several more. As they escape, the gang knock down a council officer. The BPP want to play it down and blame the victims. Sadly, it doesn’t feel too far fetched.
At the care home where Ajee works, a resident dies in suspicious circumstances and the owners quickly move the illegal staff members as the police mount an investigation. That has serious consequences for Ajee as her captors have other plans for her. Jo is determined to manage both murder investigations as effectively as possible while fending off the interference of the politicians.
This is a police procedural with bite. From the overwhelmed beat bobbies to the dodgy council officials, we get a sense of a place drowning in seediness and mismanagement. Of course, Bartlett has taken real life and twisted it to 11 for dramatic effect but that kernel of truth is what grounds this novel and makes it deeply chilling. The failing systems, budget deficiencies and corrupt officials against a worsening crime situation seem depressingly real.
Whereas Bad for Good dealt with vigilantism and police corruption in Force of Hate we have racism and political shenanigans. It’s bleak, the worst kind of right wing loons have taken control of the council and it’s no spoiler to say they don’t adhere to the rules. Lines between legal and illegal blur. This is about the serious issues of people trafficking, racism, extreme right wing violence, corruption and weak policing.
Exciting, gripping, troubling – just two novels in Bartlett is becoming one of the most interesting contemporary British crime writers out there. His knowledge of the daily grind and the political nature of the job in the higher ranks feels so insightful but he gets the uniform side too. Procedure played a little too heavily in the first novel, but it’s perfectly pitched here. Crucially, Jo is a character you get onside with very early.
Early on the introduction of the themes of the novel feels a bit heavy but the bad guys are more than cliches and the story is soon engrossing. In any case, the themes are close to all our hearts these days and chime nicely with modern sensibilities and what we expect from modern crime – social commentary. Bartlett is clearly passionate about his subject; most police procedurals don’t tackle corruption, racism and violence as well as he does. The villains, true to life, are easy to dislike and their comeuppance is satisfying. It isn’t hard to get angry at the right wing thugs and feel oodles of sympathy for the migrants they demonise, attack and persecute.
There are sympathetically drawn cops, not least Jo herself, but most ranking officers have a slimy angle, some are incompetent, others bent, there are no rose tinted spectacles here. It’s rare that a British novel featuring the police is so open about the force and its many faults. That’s to be applauded. This is an intelligent and thoughtful novel that royally entertains with a fizzing and grounded story.
For a different take on the city try Peter James and his Roy Grace novels.
Alison & Busby
CFL Rating: 5 Stars