Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Murder Man.
DCI Max Wolfe may be grizzled police veteran and a new breed of truth seeker, but he can’t quite believe the veracity of the crimes committed against seven ex-private school men as he attempts to peel away the layers of a serpentine investigation at a perverted and twisted kind of hate. Despite the overabundance of police procedurals of late, Parsons’ novel doesn’t necessarily reinvent the formula, although it certainly provides an exciting accent to other novels in this genre.
For DCI Wolfe, who lives in a flat opposite Smithfield’s Meat Market, the most difficult aspect of his daily life is giving his five-year-old daughter, Scout, a good life after her mother unceremoniously abandoned them. A gentle, unassuming soul with a tough exterior, Max boxes, forging rough intimacies at the local Smithfield ABC gym. A hero after sabotaging a terrorist attack outside of Kings Cross Station, Max has just been appointed to the Homicide Department at West End Central. He’s also just given Scout a cute dog called Stan in the hope that he can repair some of the damage from his personal life. But Max’s job is often demanding and inflexible, leading him to doubt whether he can even care for Scout.
Max and his boss, DCI Victor Mallory, are stunned when London banker Hugo Buck’s throat is slit, his windpipe garroted. The crime was so sudden and violent that Buck was unable to fight back against the monster who stole his breath in a butchery that shocks both Max and Victor. With no prints left at the scene, the team turn to Natasha Buck, the widow of the dead banker who was reportedly having a domestic dispute with her husband. But this woman with “her worked on thinness and her sense of entitlement” accuses Hugo of being the violent one—and she has the bruises to show it.
The loyal Mallory thrives in having a good meaty investigation to solve. He’s a long-suffering type not so easily cowed by authority or by a grisly crime scene. The two detectives work well together, and Mallory is well aware of Max’s talents. When Max stumbles upon a photograph in Buck’s office showing a group of private school boys in military uniform, the investigation takes an unusual turn. The schoolboys have unbreakable smiles and are dressed as warriors, and the photo itself is a powerful symbol for the boy that Buck had been: “these kids that had become men and the living that had become the dead.”
With the grisly second murder in Shaftsbury Avenue of helpless young drug addict Adam Jones, Max is perplexed at how the neck wounds are identical Hugo Buck’s. Torn between supporting Scout and solving the murders without tipping off the perpetrator to his efforts, Max fights to find the identity of the killer in a bleak London landscape that adds much atmosphere to this murderous thriller.
While Bob the Butcher (“serial-killer of the year”) leads the charge in social media and gathers a following of sorts, Max treads water, interviewing a number of suspects. In an effort to identify the type of knife used in the killings, Max visits Scotland Yard’s notorious Black Museum, London’s horror show of violent crime. The museum contains an extensive collection of weapons, all of which have been used in murders or serious assaults. On display are items from famous cases, most before 1900, such as Jack the Ripper and Charlie Peace. Here Max hopes to identify the type of knife used in the killings.
London is a place of loneliness, shadows and darkness, “an abandoned city in soft half-light.” Max is burdened by years of accumulated grief and self-doubt, a misery that only intensifies when one of his colleagues is violently killed and he finds himself fighting age-old British class resentment. While this isn’t a comfortable read and the narrative is slightly uninspiring and repetitive, for the most part the novel is realistic in its depiction of violent death and pointlessness of crime.
Individual scenes show Parsons’ unique gift for sharp but compassionate characterization. Max is a fairly typical archetype: a disillusioned cop right on the edge of reason, fighting to keep his home life calm. The author also imbues his hero with just the right mix of integrity and volatility. The reader never knows quite which way and how far Max is going to react in any given moment.