Parsons again hits it out of the ball park with his second novel in the Detective Inspector Max Wolfe series. Moody and stylish, The Slaughter Man is an expertly assembled crime drama that posits a familiar scenario in which a modern-day maniac duplicates a terrible crime committed over thirty years ago. Once again, The Black Museum--a unique archive of the most notorious crimes of the last hundred years--provides the clues as Max learns that a father and three grown-up sons were brutally murdered by Peter Nawkins, “The Slaughter Man.“ In 1980, this big good-looking lad “with the film star looks and a natty nickname” shot them with a cattle gun.
For DI Wolfe, his boss, DCI Pat Whitestone, DC Edie Wren, and young detective DI Curtis Lane, the fading newspaper article “RITUAL SLAUGHTER ON ESSEX FARM” becomes increasingly prophetic when the team are called to Highgate, the gated community that exists on the highest point of London. Here lie the bodies of Brad and Mary Wood and their two teenaged
children, Marlon and Piper, all placed in an execution-style killing resembling that of The Slaughter Man. The entire family have been killed in a Charles Manson-type bloodbath at point-blank range. The crime scene is grisly: Mary on the bed and Brad’s naked body, both shot twice.
Max, just for a moment, is stilled by the presence of the house’s stone
garden, a place of unexpected beauty, and the ghostly stone angels of Highgate Cemetery just next door. Mary Wood’s sister, Charlotte Gatling, pleads with Max not to give up on
four-year-old Bradley Wood; her nephew was not part of the carnage and has most likely been kidnapped. Returning to 27 Savile Row, West End Central, Max and the team concentrate on the police procedural aspects of the investigation, embarking on a tense race against time to try to outwit and outmaneuver a killer by using clues from The Black Museum’s historical records. How
did the killer gain entry, armed with more firepower than he could ever possibly use? Was the hit man
a gang member or psycho? Was it an impulse kill or premeditated? And what have they done with poor little Bradley Wood?
Parson utilizes many family elements that we‘ve seen before in British crime fiction--ritualized killing, complicated office politics, and copycat crimes--but his talent is that he can assemble them into a tight and appropriately dark and cohesive plot. Hot on the trail of newly released Nawkins, Max and Lane head to Oak Hill Farm, a ramshackle estate built on the vague border “where the end of London meets the start of Essex,” a place of fields and warehouses and illegal scrap yards. The gypsies
(or “wanderers," as the locals call them) have made Oak Hill their home. Protected by his brother Sean Nawkins, Peter is now a husk of his former self, “just some old lag who did the crime and his time.” Max tries to see the violence in Peter, tries to see the long, dark shadow of the past, but Peter Nawkins no longer looks like the man who had taken the lives of four other men.
From the machinations of a high-class escort agency run strictly through word of mouth and personal recommendations, to Brixton’s Electric Avenue and its block of grey sullen flats, to assignations of pedophilia at Bishops Avenue, the salubrious tree-lined avenue of “rich men’s dreams,” Max, Whitestone, and Wren begin their hunt for the copycat using his same methods, stalking their prey from behind barriers and partitions, moving upstairs in deserted mansions like large cats climbing in and out of trees. The maze of the city simulates the mind's labyrinth: elevated trains, the early morning bustle of Smithfield’s meat market, and the West End street traffic as it zips back and forth, sending signals to London’s cerebral cortex demanding action. All is shaded in the City’s perpetual wintry gloom.
The novel sometimes seems like a description of madness, seamlessly integrated into the plot with a gritty realism that nevertheless has a hope for the future. Max, Parsons' central character, has grown and survived from the events detailed in
The Murder Man. Through all the violence and the chaos, Max is steadfast in his efforts to be single father to Scout, the “most beautiful little kid in the world,” attempting to forge a life for themselves in their loft that looks down at the blazing lights of Smithfield Meat Market.
All of Parsons' characters are richly drawn: DCI Whitestone, who like Max suffers from the loneliness of being
a single parent; DI Curtis Lane, who faces challenges he could never have expected; the menacing Sean Nawkins, certain that his brother is being “stitched up,” just as his streetwise daughter, Echo Nawkins is certain her uncle is an innocent man; Charlotte Gatling, clinging to the hope her nephew is out there being treated with love and affection; and Peter’s old flame, Carolyn Burns, haggard and beaten down, looking far older than her middle forties. There’s no resemblance to the pretty, smiling sixteen-year-old girl whose father and brother were slaughtered by her boyfriend. As
a besieged Max once again finds himself fighting for his life, secrets and
personal associations are unearthed. It’s jarring to see the no-nonsense Max
rendered all panicky and cowed by the unfolding turn of events. Meanwhile, huge professional misjudgment has a devastating impact as the case penetrates deeper into the investigators' personal lives.
There is much to admire here, from Parsons' major theme that some crimes are not over “just because someone does time and the bodies are buried,” to the emotional and visual payoff that builds from the detectives increasingly frenzied search to catch the Slaughter Man, to the spreading decay of economic inequity, pitting the haves against the less fortunate, to an embattled, unblinking London that seems literally on fire with carnage and violence.