Black Summer by M.W.Craven. Constable £19.99
Two men are dining in the Bullace and Sloe, a Cumbrian restaurant with three Michelin stars. One man is elegantly dressed in a fine suit. The other is wearing mud-spattered jeans and a wet jacket. They are presented with a dish of ortolan bunting. The small bird is captured, blinded and fed until it’s four times its size. It is drowned in boiling brandy and served whole and piping hot. The man in jeans watches as the man in the suit enjoys to the full the bird’s rare succulence. “He chewed into the bird. An explosion of fat, guts, bones and blood entered his mouth.” As the man in the suit finishes eating, two police officers, one uniformed, enter and arrest the other man. Washington Poe was being arrested for murder.
Washington Poe is Mike Craven’s detective hero. He’s Washington because his mother was raped at a diplomatic party. Adopted, he’s been angry all his life, but once he’d learnt the truth about himself, he feels “a white hot rage, a burning need for retribution.”
Two weeks before Poe’s arrest, “Problem-Solver Constable Graham Alsop had been sitting at the police desk in Alston Library on the fourth Wednesday in the month – the blue light on the Victorian Police Station in Alston had gone out in 2012 and rural policing had been reduced to this monthly surgery. An old man had demanded DNA testing on a dog who had been fouling his roses and then a girl walks into the library. She looked scared. Exhausted, emaciated. Her eyes were shrunken into their bruised sockets. She gave her name. Elizabeth Keaton.
Elizabeth Keaton was the daughter of the celebrity chef, Jared Keaton, at the Bullace and Sloe. She had disappeared six years previously. No body was found, but there seemed sufficient evidence to believe she was murdered in a brutal and sustained assault. Washington Poe had been responsible for Jared Keaton being found guilty of murdering his own daughter.
Poe had been following his instincts. Despite Jared Keaton’s charm and his charisma as a celebrity chef, Poe sensed he was a psychopath.
Now the supposed corpse has turned up alive, Washington Poe returns to his lonely cottage in the Shap Fells, still certain that his instinct was not mistaken.
That instinct leads him to tenaciously pursue the re-opened case, Elizabeth Keaton disappears and Washington Poe is arrested for her murder.
Mike Craven writes tightly, ingeniously plotted fiction. Washington Poe and the brilliant but socially awkward Tilly Bradshaw, who assists him, are strongly-drawn, disruptive characters who carry the story convincingly. As in his earlier novel, The Puppet Show, the scene is set in a closely observed Cumbria. And Mike has a chilling taste for the brutal and a nicely-toned ironic humour.
This is a well-crafted novel that has as many twists and turns as a path across the fells.