Hayder has a distinct talent for the macabre, her novels rich with detail both physical and mystical. As in the prior novel, Ritual, Detective Inspector Jack Caffrey of Bristol’s Major Crime Investigative Unit and Sergeant Flea Marley of the underwater search unit cross paths once again, this time in parallel investigations that bring them to a shocking conclusion by the novel’s end: “If you stop looking at death, death will stop sending out its handmaiden to find you.”
In the last investigation, Caffrey tried to convince Flea of the existence of the mysterious Tokoloshe, an entity that uses bizarre African rituals in the performance of muti. Since then, a series of inexplicable suicides has plagued the area, and Jack is convinced the same culprit is at work this time.
Meanwhile, Flea is diving Elf’s Grotto, a network of flooded quarries outside the city, in search of a missing celebrity wife. Jack is pursing a different angle, a connection to the rituals of the Tokoloshe and the increasing suicides.
Not content with these events, Hayder adds another bizarre curve: a surgeon obsessed with collecting the skin of his female patients. As usual, we will only appreciate the existence of this strange character in an exotic twist of the plot at the end of the novel. From the autopsy table to the cadavers Flea commonly deals with on her job, the details are grotesque and not for the faint of heart.
Hayder’s images have a tendency to stick in the mind, a special gift the author consistently wields with authority. But it is not only the evils of miscreants that make this story unusual. On their separate paths, both Caffrey and Marley deal with ethical dilemmas, a departure from their usual criminal investigations, more personal than professional.
For Caffrey, the Walking Man of prior cases lends a sympathetic ear and a respite from the pressures of too many women’s deaths. Flea’s problem is far more intimate and fraught with betrayal, a twist that takes a kind-hearted gesture and turns it into something extremely damaging. Both have crises to face and conundrums to solve, the resolutions bringing them once more into each other’s territory. Perhaps soon the attraction between them will be resolved, but Hayder can be trusted to make it a nightmarish ride before we find out.