Our book today is Scottish author Ewart Hutton’s Dead People, the follow-up to his debut Good People (the latter’s staid title was given a private edge by the book’s plot; this current book provides no such edge, so its title is the equivalent of Murder Mystery, alas), and its basic premise will be familiar to mystery readers: a good cop is exiled by his resentful superiors to some far-distant outpost where his detective skills immediately begin solving local crimes amidst his new exotic setting. This is the situation in which half-Welsh, half-Italian Detective Sergeant Glyn Capaldi finds himself when he’s dispatched by his boss Jack Galbraith from the comparative sophistication of Cardiff to the wilds of rural “Pig Wales,” specifically the primitive hamlet of Dinas.
It’s a kind of unspoken tenet of murder mysteries that the familiarity of basic premises must not be held against them, and all experienced readers know why: we’ve all seen the most hoary premise elevated into something genuinely enjoyable by a writer’s talent or industry. We don’t look at a new example of fish-out-of-water-cop and think “No way – not that again.” Instead, we look at such a thing and think, “OK – show me what you’re going to do with it.”
Hutton does quite a lot. His novels are narrated from DS Capaldi’s point of view, so we’re sitting right beside his sharp perceptions of the grudging locals all around him, most of whom consider him a sinister interloper. In Dead People, he’s hard at work tracking a mysterious ram-castrator when he gets a more urgent call: a human body has been found at the construction ground of a new wind-turbine farm. The body at first strikes Capaldi as “the thorax of giant crayfish” because it lacks both hands and head.
Other bodies are soon found similarly mutilated, and the answer seems obvious: some criminal – a gangster, a drug-kingpin – is killed people elsewhere and dumping their bodies at the work-site minus the parts that facilitate identification. This is the working theory Galbraith himself instantly comes to, and it’s shared by Detective Chief Inspector Kevin Fletcher, Capaldi’s professional nemesis, who’s been loaned to the crime from Cardiff and temporarily installed as field officer on the case.
Capaldi, of course, doesn’t believe it (we wouldn’t have much of a novel if he did, would we?). The first-person narration gives us a perfect vantage point to watch Capaldi’s scrabbling, retentive thought processes and also gives us several thrilling moments when, as Hutton puts it, “the gears whirred, meshed, and locked home.”
The gruesome developments in the case eventually cause the gears to do just that, particularly in another staple of the genre: the shower/bathtub revelation moment:
As I towelled myself dry I realized that no one was going to buy a word of this. Because in the real world that even cops were a part of, the world of small pleasures and disappointments, boredom and television news and the belly laugh after the third beer, it still seemed incomprehensible that a person could take the life of two others, for other reason than to send an investigative train down a branch line that was going to swallow it up.
One of the main pleasures of cop-out-of-water murder mysteries is the aforementioned exotic locations, and here Hutton doesn’t disappoint: he evokes the beautiful, harsh, rain-lashed feel of rural Wales so expertly that it almost takes its place as a character in the book (he sure as Hell evokes it better than the stock photo chosen for the U.S. cover of Dead People, which depicts a sinister cabin in the middle of a landscape of a type found nowhere in Wales). And although the novel’s climax is very well-done, it, too, adheres to the strictures of the form.
In other words, poor DS Capaldi probably shouldn’t pack for Cardiff just yet.
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