In 1999, in the village of Sabden, Lancashire, Assistant Commissioner Florence Lovelady attends the funeral of Larry Glassbrook. Back in 1969, Glassbrook murdered teenager Patricia "Patsy" Wood. Thanks to a series of photos identified early in the process, Glassbrook was convicted of another two killings. Florence recalls Glassbrook well; she actually chose to lodge with his family. When Florence first moved to Sabden, she thought of the Glassbrooks as "colorful exotic birds" living on the outskirts of the village in a large detached house.
The police procedural aspects of Bolton's novel are familiar, but there are also characteristics that show the story as something new--beginning with Florence, who churns with fierce intelligence and independence. As one of the first women in Sabden's fledgling police force, Florence is determined to ignore her colleagues' entrenched misogyny and rise through the ranks on her own merits. The novel is as much about Florence's journey as about Patsy's murder investigation, as Florence has to fight to be taken seriously by the all-male squad room, a task complicated by the attentions of Detective Constable Tom Devine, of a similar age but more senior. Florence is not "popular down the nick." Her colleagues think "she's better than the rest of them" and that everyone at the station has an unreasonable prejudice about anywhere south of Manchester.
But there's Patsy's case to solve, and it's a grisly one. Glassbrook was arrested and subsequently convicted, but there were many gaps in the detectives' knowledge of the case. Florence has spent the better part of these thirty years trying to come to terms with the ghosts of wrongful condition. Each of Larry's victims were found with a single effigy, hogtied hands and feet and blackthorn piercing their eyes, ears and mouths.
Given Florence's role, the discovery of an effigy in her likeness moves her directly into the line of fire. After being ignored for so long, she's not going to let go, especially now that she has Ben's help in trying to retrace Glassbrook's last moments and to research the Pendle Witches, men and women hanged for witchcraft in the 17th century. From a voice calling out for help to a newly dug grave, the case is revealed to be far worse than simply someone stealing into dark churchyards and unearthing missing girls.
Florence is, quite bluntly, fantastic, bearing herself with every inch of professional unflappability she needs in order to be taken seriously. For astute readers, her character should ring a bell: Prime Suspect's Jane Tennison, the most famous female police detective of them all. If Florence can't be liked, she'll settle for being respected. She makes very clear to Tom and to the other officers, particularly the legendary Detective Inspector Jack Sharples and Reg Bannister, Sabden's church warden, that she is more than capable of finding who killed Patsy. There's an implacable nature to Florence, which we see in her interactions with squad mates and in various interrogation scenes. She knows "the Glassbrook case" made her career and made her famous: "even now I see young officers nudging each other when they look away."
The mystery is solid, and Florence's last-gasp solution is sufficiently surprising and ingenious. The period detail is well-done, especially the men with their toiletries--Brut 33 and Old Spice--and the other scent that permeates the squad room: "a cloying, greasy smell." Somewhere in Sabden is the cold heart of a killer who takes pride in his work. Everyone at the station is tense and short-tempered. The secondary characters are mostly cyphers, especially Avril and Daphne, who give Florence a home and then take her to the site of Malkin Tower, the home of Old Mother Demdike and her family. With Daphne's talk of witchcraft, it's quite apparent that there is an attempt at dark magic here: the clay effigies and the abductions on the new moon. Lancashire seems beautiful inhospitable and unpredictable, but at times is "verging on savage."
Moving through this thriller with heart, the reader is ultimately tuned into Florence's great disappointments as well as her secrets and her great love for Ben. We end up breathing a great sigh of relief when the real perpetrator is finally caught. Flirting with the themes of memory, darkness and emptiness, The Craftsman reveals witches, the nebulous creatures that live in shadows, a sinister group of strangers who rely upon the syncretic nature of a small village of Sabden to impart their their wrath.