A slow-burn mystery that takes its time to unravel, Perfect Sins is more than just a traditional crime novel. Bannister’s location becomes a significant character in a study of six-hundred-year-old family obligations. The gorgeous grounds of Byrfield House serve as an exotic backdrop to a land defined by those who inhabit it. It's not an easy place to escape, as our heroine Constable Hazel Best soon discovers. Hazel has recently returned to Byrfield to visit her father, Alfred Best, who works as a handyman on the Byrfield estate.
Hazel has befriended Gabriel Ash, a serious, tortured individual haunted by recent his past. Gabriel is still reeling from the abduction of his wife and children by Somali pirates. As the novel opens, Ash has just met with Stephen Graves, the CEO of Bertram Castings. Ash is convinced that Graves knows what happened to his family. But Graves, a wealthy weapons manufacturer, seems more concerned with hunting down those responsible for the hijacking of British-made munitions than finding Ash’s missing family.
Beauty and tranquility are juxtaposed with crime and desperation. Byrfield House itself (“a manor house, a two-story, plus attics, stone building, the severity of its classical Georgian lines softened by Virginia creeper”) is the scene for a thirty-year-old crime. Local archeologist David Sperrin has been excavating a Neolithic cist on Bryfield’s muddy grounds. The body of a child lies in a carefully constructed grave made of slabs once lined with blankets: a boy of eight or ten years, entirely “skeletonized.”
While DNA will prove the matter conclusively, Hazel has no doubt that she’s looking at the remains of a child laid to rest by someone who loved him with as much care and dignity as could be managed. Inspector Edwin Norris has seen graves like this before, “secret graves.” As Norris’s investigation moves forward, the detective’s natural instincts move him in the direction of Peter Byrfield, the current Earl of Byrfield, and also the Countess Alice Byrfield. Both seem to know more than their initial confessions might suggest. Clearly something nasty went on that reflected the sometimes difficult bridge between old and new money, between the landowners and their tenant farmers. Norris is suspicious of the countess and her constant need to shut herself away, far from her son’s “ridiculous friends.” Meanwhile, Hazel is dubious of Pete’s constant ruminations that he “belongs” to Byrfield as the “land has a grip like iron.”
Also a suspect is Diana Sperrin, David’s artist mother who lives in a ramshackle cottage in Wool Row, next to the Byrfield Estate. Her husband, Saul, was an Irish traveler, “sometimes around and sometimes not.” One day Saul came back from his travels, collected his oldest son, and has not been seen in thirty years. Now bitter and resentful, Diana feels as though she’s done her best with the hand she’s been dealt.
Bannister captures the slow process of Norris and Hazel’s murder investigation, the DNA results leading Norris to focus on David and Peter. Both have an embittered history and a damaging relationship with their mothers. David has never been able to make Diana love him, and Pete clearly resents being the guardian of six hundred years of history. Pete’s resents that he has to marry when he’s required to—and to marry money. Even his sisters have never liked the absurd rule of primogeniture that gives the title and the estate to a male younger child.
Bannister’s talent for writing natural dialogue complements her dark, brooding, often eccentric look at a community that exists by its own rules. The expensively educated, landowning gentry have remarkably different voices from those like down-to-earth Hazel, who proves to be lightning fast and intuition-guided. She’s shepherded by a natural goodwill, and her motives are always sound. Then there’s Gabriel, the flawed, embattled hero of the story who is forced to seek solace though a therapist so that he might be capable of walking, living, and operating like a fully-fledged adult man again. Having spent his career tracking murderous predators, Ash is sure that Hazel thinks he’s crazy for wasting his life chasing “a dead woman and two dead boys.”
From the tyranny of a loveless marriage that eventually ensures the liquidity of an aging estate, to long-vanished Saul Sperrin, to Diana Sperrin’s corroded, angry soul, Bannister sets up a toxic scenario, the dead boy a side issue to the real killer who lurks on Bryfield’s lonely country roads. Full of intrigue and action, and with a plot that keeps us guessing, Bannister’s novel leaves us with a lingering cliffhanger in which Ash and Hazel are forced to fight for their lives in a side-case that becomes distressingly real.