Love Story, With Murders ~ Harry Bingham

Love story with MurdersThe police procedural has long been the home of some of the most dysfunctional cops in the land.  They seem to gravitate toward whichever force our crime writers choose to write about.  You have to wonder sometimes how they manage to survive and indeed some of the more notable have been demoted as a result of the way in which they have bent the rules, if not the law itself, in pursuit of the nation’s baddies. But, of course, they always do eventually catch the baddies, which is why, ultimately, they are forgiven their peccadilloes and allowed to continue in service.  They may be bad police officers but they are outstanding cops.

Harry Bingham offers us one of the more recent examples of the breed in the person of DC Fiona Griffiths, whom we first met in Talking to the Dead investigating the death of a young woman and her daughter.  Thought, initially, to be only related to drugs and prostitution, the murders ultimately prove to be the tip of a much more far reaching web of intrigue that threatens to undermine many of Cardiff’s less savoury members of society.

Fiona Griffiths is certainly not one for doing things by the book, but in her case there is good reason for her episodes ‘off piste’.  Her own back story is one of trauma and serious ill health and maintaining any sort of equilibrium is difficult for her.  Indeed, as is so often the case in current crime fiction, following the development of the main character can be as fulfilling as unravelling the intricacies of the investigation and I, at least, welcomed the steps that she takes towards moving to a more stable relationship with the world, her colleagues and, most importantly, herself.

However, Fiona’s personal growth doesn’t detract for a moment from the investigation she finds herself caught up in as South Wales is plunged into the worst winter in living memory.  Two bodies are discovered within days of each other and in close proximity.  They are further bound together by the fact that they have been disposed of in a very similar manner – dissected and then their various parts distributed around the neighbourhood.  What mitigates against their being connected in any way is the fact that one of them has been dead for at least five years, while the other died within the previous week.  Furthermore, the more recent victim has been scattered around a local beauty spot while the older body has been concealed in a number of different outhouses and garages.  The first necessity is for the police to discover who these two people are and whether or not there is indeed any link between them.

In attempting to unravel this mystery, Fiona is forced to examine her own family’s past.  Her adoptive father, who swears he is now going straight, has been a central figure in the Cardiff underworld and still runs certain establishments that Fiona knows it is better that she keeps well clear of.  But, it seems that if there is a link between the victims then it may well lie in one of those less than savoury nightclubs.  However, she also can’t afford to ignore where the second victim worked and the possibility that what looks like a perfectly ordinary engineering company may in fact be involved in distinctly less than legitimate dealings with the arms trade.  As the story develops the plot takes a decidedly political turn and it isn’t that much of a surprise to read in the end papers that it is based on events that actually took place.  Unfortunately, the type of underhand dealings that are revealed at the book draws to its close have all too authentic a ring to them.

Bingham starts a lot of hares in this novel and it is to his credit that he never leaves the reader in any way struggling to keep up.  Furthermore, he is very good at characterisation.  Despite the fact that this is only the second in the series, the main players are already clearly defined in my mind and I am convinced both by them as individuals and by the trajectory their relationships are taking.  While I wouldn’t class this as literary fiction in the way I might with something by William Brodrick, for example, I do think that Bingham is amongst the best in his field and I look forward to the next in this series, which I believe is due later this year.

With thanks to Random House Publishing Group – Bantam Dell, who made this available for review.

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14 thoughts on “Love Story, With Murders ~ Harry Bingham

  1. Sounds good. Am always keen to get into new detectives! Will look out for this and as is only second in series will start at beginning which will make a nice change!

    1. Harry Bingham sounds worth looking up. I see his story is set in a worst winter in living memory. I suspect that the novel’s planning may have been in 2009/10 when we had those two extremely cold winters, no doubt some crime novels of 2015/16 will have very wet and windy backgrounds! I actually rather like that as it brings me closer to the action.

      1. Yes, I’m sure you’re right, Ian. There is snow up to everyone’s arm pits and we’ve certainly experienced that where I lived for the last three years. Fortunately, this year, because I live on the top of a hill I have been flooded in but not flooded out, if that makes sense.

    1. Do you know, that is exactly what I’ve been thinking, Stefanie. I’ve just finished another where the lead detective has suffered the most appalling abuse in his past and I’m thinking “too much, already.” I really don’t think he’d be allowed to continue in the service if this was real life.

  2. I have the first one on my pile of books to read! I’m delighted the second one is just as good. I have been reading a lot of non-fiction this winter, with the occasional mystery thrown in. Talking To the Dead keeps calling to me, so I’m really happy to know that you are enjoying the series.

    I wonder what it is about mystery/detective/police procedurals that let the main character be so dysfunctional, so anit-hero, and get away with it? An interesting thought that you bring up, Ann.

    1. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, Susan, the more so because I’ve just read another first police procedural where the lead detective has had the sort of last that I would have thought would debar him from ever conducting a murder enquiry. It’s as if there are now so many detective series on the market that new authors feel they have to give their cops something different to mark them out. But now it’s becoming ridiculous and I think eventually non-productive. However, don’t let that put you off the Bingham. He’s good.

  3. Shucks, y’all – I’ve just seen this review & comments and am mightily flattered by their positive tone.. Thank you.

    On the detective-with-strange-past thing, some thoughts of mine:

    1) Mystery novels often come in series, so the (somewhat more normal) fictional formula of an everyman/woman hurled into an unusual situation doesn’t quite work. Since the investigation of murder is perfectly routine for a police officer, there needs to be a little injection of something else from somewhere. Messing around with the main character seems like a natural option.

    2) In my case, it seemed natural that the person at the heart of solving mysteries should, herself, be a mystery. That seemed to me to be deeply natural for the genre – puzzles locked within puzzles.

    3) Again – and I don’t want to put out any plot spoilers – but murder mysteries are all about the border of life and death, so why not bring those issues into the very make-up of the character I was writing about? My protagonist’s mental issues are as life-&-death as you can get – and form a (for me) natural accompaniment to the themes of the book. Indeed, when I hit on my character’s particular predicament, it struck me as remarkable that crime writers hadn’t used it before.

    4) Then, too, there’s Sherlock Holmes. You can’t, as a mystery writer, ignore his shadow. The ultimate outsider. Someone whose non-standard perspective lets him understand things about human doings that we poor normals can never achieve. I think that the tediously middle-aged, seen-it-all, basically straight but boozy cop/PI maybe once had a touch of Holmesian outsiderness (Philip Marlowe was an outsider) but certainly doesn’t now.

    Um. There are probably other things going on too. For example, and again speaking of my own creative process, I’m aware of something which I can only describe as 4th (or 3rd? or 5th? I’ve lost count) wave feminism. The idea that a woman can be a cranky/strange/unappealing misfit, but that she can and will be judged on hr job performance rather than her romantic qualities. I started to write my first Fiona Griffiths novel before reading Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so there was no direct influence there, but still – there’s me, Stieg Larsson, the Danish/Swedish TV series The Bridge, Claire Danes in Homeland …

    I’d be interested in anyone’s thoughts on this. It’s a big subject, methinks.

    1. First, thank you for taking the time and trouble to respond in such detail. I’m even more glad I like your writing now than I was before.

      I very much take your point about the need for the unusual situation and it’s something I’ve been considering recently in the light of Eva Dolan’s novel Long Way Home. For a first book I think that is a remarkable piece of writing but I worry about an author trying to create a series around a Hate Crimes Unit as I can foresee problems in trying to vary, at the very least, the motivation behind the crime over a long term period. My difficulty is that some of the fictional cops I’m being asked to accept at the moment I simply can’t see surviving in an organisation that is as hierarchical as the police service. I’d like to think that they would – they do, after all, have a very good clear up rate – but on the whole I think they’d either get the push rather early on in their careers or get their individuality squashed out of them. I don’t suppose it was the reason Mark Billingham did it, but I cheered very loudly when he put Tom Thorne back into uniform because I couldn’t see him being allowed to push the powers that be any further. It is possible to maintain a long running series with reasonable sane individuals in the main role. Quintin Jardine, for example, has managed it with his Bob Skinner stories. One of the reasons I enjoy those is because I can believe in all those characters.

      I like a loner as much as anyone but the reason for some main characters’ isolation is having to become more and more extreme in order to be original. I’ve just read another novel (better not named because it is so derivative of Val McDermid as to be actionable) where the main character’s past is such that I can’t believe he would have ever been allowed back on the force. I know it’s fiction, but fiction only works for me if I can make a connection to real life and occasionally I am having to strain to do that.

      You’re right, though this is a very big subject. For example, once you get onto the subject of women we could be here forever. That is getting better. Fiona is a great character and I like S J Bolton’s Lacey Flint and Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan as well.

      I’ll alert my other followers who are crime readers to your comments and they may well have points of view to offer as well.

      Thanks again for taking the trouble to stop by. I’m looking forward to book three very much and I shall make time to go back and read your earlier novels as well.

      1. Thanks, Alex! I’ve spoken to some real policemen about how a hierarchy would treat the maverick. In terms of Fiona’s fitness for work, coppers have told me that a modern British police force wouldn’t have an issue with either FG’s history of mental illness or her father’s criminality. In both cases, the things need to be declared and openly discussed at interview stage, but if a candidate’s answers appear satisfactory, then those things would be no bar to progress.

        In terms of the authority-defying maverick, then my sources tell me that, yes, there is some patience extended to different personality types (especially in CID – the British name for the detectives’ department), but that you certainly can’t routinely have arguments with your boss, any more than you can in any other large organisation. My Fiona is therefore quite careful to do most of her naughty stuff away from anyone’s gaze! Ohg, and I haven’t read Eva Dolan, by the way, but she sounds good. I’ll go buy one of her books now! Thanks

        1. The question of the maverick is always an interesting one, I think and I suspect that tolerance is extended as long as the success rate is maintained. When problems arise, however, when the arrest rate goes down or prosecutions fail because of failure to follow procedure then isn’t the maverick the first to fall? It’s another field, but you only have to look at Kevin Peterson. I hope you enjoy Dolan. I’m pitching her to everyone at the moment partly because I think what she’s writing about is going to be of increasing importance over the coming years but also because I think for a first novel her writing is remarkably mature.

          1. I think both of you raise interesting ideas about maverick police men working outside the norm within their hierarchy of the police. If we look back to Marlowe, then we have the role of the investigator outside all hierarchies, so maybe the huge amount of police procedurals now is a result of trying to be independent and original within the system. Look at John Rebus – one of the best police detectives in the modern era, and yet he is always one step out of working with his colleagues. There is a space to be individual within the system, I think the best books show us – that if there is only hierarchy in the police, then crimes won’t get solved. We need the outsider, the slightly different person, to bring in the abnormal (unusual? eclectic? different) idea/viewpoint, for the system to work. You raise Holmes, Mr Bingham, and of course he works with the police as a consultant – entirely outside their hierarchy, but within the law (more or less). It’s interesting that we as a society/writers have moved from working so much outside the police, to working our way into the police and seeing what room there is for the individual. The flawed individual, these days, or different in some way. You raise an interesting point, too, Mr Bingham, that to do the same old police procedural was stale. As soon as you added your protagonist’s history and conflict, you had the essential character and what she could bring to the police. I would not say I completely agree here, thinking on Graham Hurley’s series where the main protagonist Joe Faraday is the straight detective, and Paul Winter is the wild detective breaking all the rules within the same force. Part of what makes Rebus work so well is that he has colleagues who aren’t willing to go out on a limb as far as Rebus is, though he does get much support from them.
            I will have to go read Talking To the Dead (which I have on my pile of books to be read asap) so I can see what you are doing with Fiona, Mr Bingham.

            Very much enjoyed your discussion and ideas presented, Alex and Mr Bingham, lots to think about.

            1. Interesting that you raise Hurley, Susan, because I haven’t read the earlier series, but am in the middle of the second Jimmy Suttle novel and very much enjoying it. I must go back and read the earlier ones and look at the point you’re making more closely.

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