Maitland’s latest begins just as DI Kathy Kolla is called to a veiled and foggy Regent’s Canal where the body of Vicky Hawke has been found on her crumbling-down houseboat. Moored just by the Ha’penny Bridge, the boat itself is just one of the many inhabited by an odd assortment of characters who will come to play pivotal role in the case.
Detective Chief Inspector David Brock and Kathy realize that there is much more to Vicky’s suspected suicide than meets the eye. The resulting investigation erratically leads them into the bureaucratic machinations of Commander Fred Lynch, the new head of London’s Homicide and Serious Crime Unit. Lynch wants to fundamentally change the unit and encourage “radical innovation,” which he hopes will lead eventually to a stronger and fitter police force.
From the outset, the examination into Vicky’s possible murder is hampered by the current realities of budget cuts and diminishing resources—and also an angry Lynch, who can’t believe that Kathy actually attended the crime scene for what was merely a suspected suicide. Never one to be intimidated, Kathy is certain that something is odd and dodgy about the case. Sure, the leaky flute on Vicki’s boat was an accident waiting to happen, but the idea that Vicky was trying to hide her true identity leads Brock and Kolla to conclude that something far more sinister was going on than just a suicidal rosy-dead girl on a narrow, creaky boat.
Refusing to be hampered by a predictable plot, Maitland strafes his storyline with multiple characters and potential complications, more than in the usual Brock and Kolla novel. When Kathy runs into Ned Tisdell coming out of Vicky’s boat carrying a book and a raven print which he says belongs to him, the focus then turns to the victim’s true identity. Kathy feels an odd sense of alienation, “as if these boat people inhabited a parallel universe of fog and secrets.” Now there are four rowboats moored along side each other, all with a dark shadow in their past or something to hide or escape from.
Brock, meanwhile, faces a subdued sense of crisis that pervades the team in their head-office, the old Georgian Terrace on Queen Anne’s Gate. The “first shocks of the long-forecast storm” arrive, not only in the form of the intimidating, bullying Commander Lynch, who always seems to loom large, hampering the investigation into Vicky’s death at every possible turn, but also as Jack “the butcher” Bragg, who has unexpectedly arrived back in town. Bragg was once a menacing presence in the London underworld, the leader of a clutch of vicious stand-over and strong-arm thugs who terrorized businesses across the East End. Lynch is positive that his new high-tech methods, coupled with infinite contacts among the movers and shakers of this criminal subterranean society, will eventually lead to Bragg’s capture.
Maitland knows how to tell a good story, and his plots are always complex and believable (and his characterizations are also second to none). From a violent explosion where a sizable chunk of a West End city block lies in a smoking ruin, to the cover-ups at the salubrious Pewsey Clinic (where an injured Kathy is sent to recover from an operation gone horribly wrong), to two genius sisters, possibly murdered because of their knowledge of cryptology and code-breaking, to Lynch’s fanatical micromanaging and his obsession to finally get Bragg, Maitland unfurls one of his more elaborate, complicated outings to date with a range of characters that represent the many facets of the central London police network.
Although I thought Maitland had trouble juggling his unwieldy cast with the various plot turns that occur particularly in the later half of the novel, he does well in building his story on information protection and data mining as he focuses on how the criminal underworld filters through every aspect of London life and how policing methods are ever changing in this new high-tech millennium.