This is a debut novel for Roz Watkins and the first in a proposed series about a character called DI Meg Dalton. The book is published by HQ, a division of Harper Collins, and is currently available in hard back.
The blurb on the inside cover:
“A shocking death. A lawyer is found dead in a Peak District cave, his face ribboned with scratches. A sinister message. Amidst rumours of a local curse, DI Meg Dalton is convinced this is a cold-blooded murder. There’s just one catch – chiselled into the cave wall above the body is an image of the grim reaper and the dead man’s initials, and it’s been there for over a century. A deadly game. As Mega battles to solve the increasingly disturbing case, it’s clear someone knows her secrets. The murderer is playing games with Meg – and the dice are loaded”
I’ll get it out there. I really hated this book. It made me angry. Sadly it started really well. The scene examination by DI Dalton sees a body in a cave and the image of the grim reaper and the deceased’s initials, all hidden under plantlife and clearly having been there for ages. But very slowly she started introducing procedural stuff that was just plainly wrong and totally misunderstood by the author. The introduction of a, “coldly logical” autistic character who was perfectly capable of the murder if it made sense, did not help the authors cause with me either. And here’s why. I am autistic and whilst I am logical I don’t consider that cold and I wouldn’t kill someone just because a deal had gone wrong. Obviously. Of course stereotypes, like here, would suggest otherwise. Uneducated, boring stereotypes. I spent the book wondering, angrily, whether it was that easy for her to make the autistic character the killer and I was ready to throw the book out of the window. And the reason I got caught up on the detail of police procedurals is because I was a murder squad DS for coming on for 10 years and spent most of my police service as a detective and working on murders. I worked with the murder computer system H.O.L.M.E.S daily and in incident rooms. With a little bit of research you get to understand how it all works, there is a manual about it you know, the Murder Investigation Manual (MIM) , and reading that helps you understand what H.O.L.M.E.S is and what it does.
H.O.L.M.E.S was developed after the Yorkshire Ripper investigation in a bid to make all the information collected during an investigation searchable. Anything you obtain, like a statement, is typed onto the system then cross referenced with everything it mentions, the people, the places, the things. So if you then bring up a record for a person for example you can see in their log all the documents they are mentioned in and then click on them to read them. So you can interrogate the information and work out what needs to be done. What’s not going to help is just staring at the screen, as Meg does,
“I turned to my computer and stared at the information on Holmes, trying to make sense of all the threads”.
It’s like staring at the internet. It shows a real lack of understanding from the author.
What also happens in a murder investigation is a whole team gets allocated to work on it and they have particular roles. You’d have an overall boss referred to as the SIO (Senior Investigating Officer) who makes the big picture decisions about suspects and scenes for example. Depending on the area and the seriousness of the crime that would likely be a DCI or above. The SIO has a deputy who backs them up and usually has areas like media and forensics designated to them. Both of these people are responsible for completing the Policy File and for ensuring that there are regular briefings with the team to ensure an exchange of information. On a new murder these will happen at least daily and often at the start and the end of the day.
I’m not really sure if Meg was the SIO or the D\SIO to be honest. She certainly reported to a boss who threatened to take her off of the case and he had knowledge of the case. But she was a one woman band. There’s no mention of briefings, a few chats are had though.
A murder will have 1-2 DS’s on it and they will work to prioritise all the actions raised according to the policy set by the SIO. Every document is read by the reader (who may be a DS or a civilian) and actions are raised from it. These actions then become their own thing and are allocated to an officer. Everything is raised as an action although not everything is allocated, some things may be filed though it shows that the line of enquiry was considered and dismissed By raising actions and allocating them the investigation management team then know that lines of enquiry are being progressed, by who and what the updates are.
Meg does not bother with this way of working, verbally tasking one of her DS’s usually to go and do something,
“Anyway, could you have a chat with the man in the bookshop?”
“Since you want to help…there’s some number plate data that I’d like you go apply your expertise to. I’ll send you an email”.
in real life the actions are allocated to the appropriate team member by the officer or civilian member of staff tasked with that role in the enquiry.
Not for Meg though:
“The next day… I… dragged myself in early to talk to the team, allocate actions and avoid any questions about my appearance”.
Now my confusion about whether Meg is the SIO or D/SIO is inconsequential because she is certainly one of them as she is presented as running the investigation. And it is really important that that management level exists to maintain the view of the bigger picture, to report to those above you, you know like the Chief Constable, who’s going to be interested in a murder in their county. But not Meg. Meg is a very hand’s on DI. Not something I ever came across in 16 years of policing. Because it’s not appropriate and not their role. There are DC’s for that. And it is the DC’s that investigate alongside civilian investigators. The DI wouldn’t go out with the DS unless that was the decision of the SIO and it usually related to challenging witnesses about inconsistencies and was a big moment in an investigation. Challenging someone is by its nature a fairly confrontational event and would be risk assessed inevitably involving two officers attending.
Not for Meg though!
Edward Swift, the autistic character, is visited by Meg and challenged about his lying.
This is when her annoying autistic stereotyping comes to the fore for me,
“Edward shifted back an inch and something seemed to flip inside him. Like someone had turned on his Bluetooth to allow communication”.
Edward is clearly high functioning autistic (previously known as Aspergers) and given his age and occupation has clearly worked out how to get on in the world, he is married with a child. And yet apparently he can’t communicate. (raises eyes). Well he is autistic.
Now listen, I know I have massive issues in the first place with ever being able to read this book calmly. An autistic character and a H.O.L.M.E.S investigation are going to be big deliveries for me as a reader and would need to be dealt with right. I appreciate that most people would read this and never pick up on the awful representation of a murder investigation.
But I am disappointed. Hugely. I wish the author had just never gone there. I had a conversation on line a few weeks ago with Claire Macintosh, a former police officer turned author, who I can read crime novels by, where she said that a lot of books written by former police officers are a bit dull because they write too much about the procedure, like they’re trying to impress you. And this is what it felt like was happening here. Watkins seems to have learned the police use a computer called HOLMES in a murder investigation, she even indicates she knows what the letters stand for. Clever. Google definitely has the answer. But that doesn’t mean that you know what it actually does or how you use it. Surely you would have asked someone? Surely when you were asking someone you would have asked them about how a murder investigation is run. I appreciate that this might be a bit dull and if it is, leave it out. Why do you have to suggest that you know what you’re talking about? Just tell the story without mentioning H.O.L.M.E.S, without talking about allocating actions, without having chats with the team. I’d even accept a DI doing the investigation if you weren’t anchoring it in reality! If you’re heading down that road then it should be realistic. Not a pick and choose mash up of what you fancy. And I say fancy in a kind way because this reads like the author has not made choices, she just doesn’t understand.
So I have to say that I thought this book was awful and I haven’t even touched on the hideous stereotype of the person who did commit the murder, the whole story line that led there and on an on.
For me, this was a bad book. It put me off British Crime books for the time being. I’ve gone out and found some crime stuff from other countries, deliberately picking them from Iceland, Norway and Germany. To avoid having to read a book that makes me this angry again.