The Blood Detective, by Dan Waddell

>> Monday, July 15, 2013

TITLE: The Blood Detective
AUTHOR: Dan Waddell

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Minotaur Books

SETTING: Contemporary London
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st in the Nigel Barnes series

When the naked, mutilated body of a man is found in a Notting Hill graveyard and the police investigation led by Detective Chief Inspector Grant Foster and his colleague Detective Superintendent Heather Jenkins yields few results, a closer look at the corpse reveals that what looked at first glance like superficial knife wounds on the victim’s chest is actually a string of carved letters and numbers, an index number referring to a file in city archives containing birth and death certificates and marriage licenses. Family historian Nigel Barnes is put on the case.

As one after another victim is found in various locations all over London, each with a different mutilation but the same index number carved into their skin, Barnes and the police work frantically to figure out how the corresponding files are connected. With no clues to be found in the present, Barnes must now search the archives of the past to solve the mystery behind a string of 100-year-old murders. Only then will it be possible to stop the present series of gruesome killings, but will they be able to do so before the killer ensnares his next victim? Barnes, Foster, and Jenkins enter a race against time – and before the end of the investigation, one of them will get much too close for comfort.
When you've got a handless body to investigate, you might be tempted not too pay too much attention to some superficial scratches on the torso. DCI Grant Foster, however, is more perceptive than most, and he notices that the scratches form letters and numbers. What do they mean, though? He's stumped, but they look familiar to his colleage, DS Heather Jenkins. Heather's mother recently investigated their family history, and the carved characters remind her of the index references which so flummoxed her mother. Heather remembers that her mother ended up hiring a family historian to help her in the search, and they decide to contact him to see if the letters and numbers mean anything to him.

To genealogist Nigel Barnes, they certainly do. Heather's right, they are, indeed, an index number, and by following that clue, Nigel finds a string of murders which took place in the 19th century. As bodies start piling up and the police find no clues, the events of over 100 years later provide them with the only way to find the killer.

This was a wonderful surprise. It was something I picked up at random in the library, while having a nosey round the audiobook section, so I didn't have any particular expectations for it. But as soon as I started it, I couldn't stop listening.

I was absolutely fascinated by the case, both the facts of it (sorry to be a cliché, but having serial killers and an historical connection ticks all my boxes), and the process of the investigation. The pacing of the successive revelations was flawless, always just enough to keep the booking ticking along nicely and keep me desperate to turn the pages. The police elements were well done and nicely logical, but it was the genealogical part of the investigation that took this from good to great. I really had no idea of the complexity of what that sort of thing involves, and I loved it. There's a lot of detail, which might have been tedious, but it was never boring to me, not for a minute. And remember, I was listening to the audiobook, which can make even the slightly too-detailed feel like death (some of Kathy Reichs' books come to mind, where the forensic detail is bearable when read and sort of skimmed over, but grindingly dull when listened to word by word).

But it wasn't just good plotting; the characters were great, really well-drawn and interesting, with more depths than I expected. I thought at first that Foster was going to be simply an unreconstructed caveman, what with all the moaning about Heather's concern with human rights at the beginning of the book, but there was a lot more to him, from his relationship with his father to his almost-idealistic commitment to justice, and he ended up a much more nuanced character than I expected. Nigel and Heather are also interesting, but with them, it seems like we only got enough to be intrigued and want more, and that we'll see a bit more character development later.

I also enjoyed the London setting. The action takes place in the area round Notting Hill, and the book made the point very well that even in today's giant metropolis, there are still local villages in there, with their own local history and character.

Only an excessively graphic scene kept this from an A grade. The crimes that the police are investigating do have pretty horrific violence, but that all happens off-screen. Seeing it happen on-screen was a bit too much, I thought. But that's the only flaw, and if you're not listening to the audiobook you'll be able to skim, so it won't be too bad.

There is, unfortunately, only one more book in this series, published over 4 years ago (although Waddell has another one published under a pseudonym and set on the Titanic, which I'm planning to read). I had a look at his blog and he mentions the publisher isn't interested in more (boo! to that publisher), but that he's considering self-publishing. I really, really hope he decides to go with it. I can't think of how he'll manage to incorporate genealogy in a natural way (as he did here) to other cases, but I'd love to find out.

MY GRADE: A very strong, solid B+.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The audiobook is narrated by Colin Mace, in a competent, enjoyable manner. I wasn't 100% convinced by Heather's Lancashire accent, but that wasn't a big deal. I'd recommend it.


Seccionista 15 July 2013 at 11:33  

You've made me curious about this one... I'll have to check it out. Thanks!

Darlynne,  15 July 2013 at 17:46  

Me, too. This sounds great. Thanks!

Rosario 15 July 2013 at 22:03  

Hope you enjoy it, both of you!

Darlynne,  4 August 2013 at 20:33  

I finished The Blood Detective last night and wanted to say that I agree with your review and grade. The genealogy was fascinating, such an unusual (at least to me) way of looking at what's around us and for unearthing information.

Although I am not a fan of long, involved exposition by a killer at the end of a book (I'm sure there are many loose ends and unknowable things at the close of any investigation), I understood why this was necessary. Also, thanks to your recommendation, I was able to skim the last few parts and save myself some horror.

All in all, this is a solid police procedural with interesting, complicated and likable characters. I look forward to the next. Thanks!

Rosario 5 August 2013 at 07:01  

Darlynne: I'm so glad the recommendation worked for you. It's rare to find a début novel that is so smoothly plotted and written.

Good to hear, too, that you were able to avoid the worst of the graphic violence at the end. I'm about to start the 2nd one as well, and I'm hoping there's none of that there!

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