Friday, November 23, 2012

Book review: "Talking to the Dead" by Harry Bingham

Talking to the Dead review
Author: Harry Bingham
4 out of 5 stars

Book Info: Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Reading Level: Adult
Recommended for: Fans of mystery/suspense/thrillers novels with great characters.

Disclosure: I received an ARC galley paperback from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Synopsis: SHE KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIKE. . . .

At first, the murder scene appears sad, but not unusual: a young woman undone by drugs and prostitution, her six-year-old daughter dead alongside her. But then detectives find a strange piece of evidence in the squalid house: the platinum credit card of a very wealthy—and long dead—steel tycoon. What is a heroin-addicted hooker doing with the credit card of a well-known and powerful man who died months ago? This is the question that the most junior member of the investigative team, Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths, is assigned to answer.

But D.C. Griffiths is no ordinary cop. She’s earned a reputation at police headquarters in Cardiff, Wales, for being odd, for not picking up on social cues, for being a little overintense. And there’s that gap in her past, the two-year hiatus that everyone assumes was a breakdown. But Fiona is a crack investigator, quick and intuitive. She is immediately drawn to the crime scene, and to the tragic face of the six-year-old girl, who she is certain has something to tell her . . . something that will break the case wide open.

Ignoring orders and protocol, Fiona begins to explore far beyond the rich man’s credit card and into the secrets of her seaside city. And when she uncovers another dead prostitute, Fiona knows that she’s only begun to scratch the surface of a dark world of crime and murder. But the deeper she digs, the more danger she risks—not just from criminals and killers but from her own past . . . and the abyss that threatens to pull her back at any time.

My Thoughts: I am willing to admit that one of the reasons I chose this particular book is because it is set in Wales, a country in which I have been fascinated since I was a pre-teen reading the Chronicles of Prydain and the Dark is Rising series and learning about all sorts of interesting Welsh legends and lore. Admittedly this is a mystery thriller, not fantasy or legend, but it’s still set in that magical country, so here I am...

As I started reading it, I found I really liked Fiona, the main character. She has a wry way of looking at things that I found very appealing. She’s working on an embezzling case and has this to say about accountants:
Accountants come in pairs these days. A middle-aged man in a dark suit and a sheen of perspiration, plus his younger accomplice, a woman who looks like her hobbies are arranging things in rows and making right angles.... Just to make my arguments even more effective – and to annoy the female accomplice – I seize the moment to make a mess of the papers in front of me. No right angles anywhere now. No rows of anything.
I found this particularly amusing because I used to do this sort of thing to a particularly persnickety coworker myself, once upon a time. Then just to mess with them some more:
To celebrate, as I’m showing the accountants out of the building, I shake hands with the female accomplice very earnestly and for three seconds longer than she is comfortable with... As she’s retrieving her hand, I give her upper arm a quick squeeze and fire off a for-your-eyes-only smile at her.
I tell you, I just really liked Fi – she’s my kind of lady! I also quite like her father, a delightful, happy man, whose favorite thing is whatever it is he happens to be about to get or, as Fi says, “A gift, that. To have as your favorite thing whatever it is you’re about to consume. Dad has a new favorite thing every day, often more.” Overall this author does a great job in creating memorable characters to which the reader can develop a certain attachment, be that positive or negative, so that was well-done.

Like a lot of these types of books, there is some wry humor mixed in here to help break up the tension. For instance, “It’s not much use being mostly good enough when your occasional lapses include heroin, prostitution, your child being taken into care and ultimately murdered. Whoops, April dear, sorry about that.” Or when Fi mentions to her boss that she’s just wildly speculating about something, he replies, “Wild speculation is exactly what we expect from our officers.” The pathologist “fusses over this summary. It’s all too clear and sharp for him. He starts qualifying every statement and then starts adding riders to his qualifications.” I love this sort of backhanded, dry humor. Another place that amused me was when Fi got lost in the hospital after visiting the pathologist (some details about that in the following paragraph).
At one point a nurse stops me and asks me if I’m all right. I say, “Yes. Quite all right,” but I say it too loudly, and I go squeaking off down the yellow vinyl to show how all right I am... I find myself at a T-junction in the corridor, wondering how to find the exit, then realize I’m staring directly at a large black-on-metal sign which says WAY OUT →. I treat this as a clue and pursue it all the way to the main exit....
This sort of dry humor keeps the tension of the overall story from growing out of hand and overwhelming the reader’s enjoyment of the story, which really is quite tense and at times almost frightening.

There were a few bits I want to call BS on. The pathologist is described as fussily pedantic, but then comes out with this beaut. “...We’ve tested urine and blood for drug use. Urine tests were negative for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, PCP, and various other substances. We detected low levels of alcohol and methamphetamine... A clearer positive result for heroin.” I might be completely out of my mind, but heroin is an opiate, and methamphetamine is an amphetamine, right? So, how can a “fussily pedantic” person first say the tests were negative for opiates and amphetamines and then turn around and say they were positive for methamphetamine and heroin? Then he pops out with this ridiculous theory about heroin overdose:
When somebody starts taking heroin, the body does all is can to counteract the effect of the drug. When the drug is taken in a familiar environment, the body is prepared for the toxic assault and is already doing its best to counteract it.... If you pull them away from their home environment, the body’s defense mechanisms haven’t been primed to respond. Result: Even an ordinary dose – the same dose as the user was tolerating in the home environment – can become lethal.
First of all, heroin is not toxic – any toxicity comes from whatever the seller has used to cut the heroin. The body doesn’t fight against heroin – it craves it. It becomes addicted. And this whole “being primed in a familiar environment” nonsense is just … ridiculous. Like the ritual of preparing to take the heroin wouldn’t be enough to “prime” the body? Admittedly this is an ARC copy, so maybe the final stage of editing will get rid of some of these inconsistencies, but... that bit, coming early in the story, made me feel really iffy about continuing – those sorts of inaccuracies put me off at an early stage in reading.

However, I persevered. And I’m very glad I did! The ending was wonderful – we receive tantalizing little hints about Fi throughout the book, and it’s all wrapped up nicely at the ending. Plus more amusing descriptions, like that of her friend, Lev, who she says moves like a cat only, “...I imagine that whoever first developed that queen of clichés never spent much time looking at cats, who are always licking their bits or finding new ways to scratch themselves.” At any rate, in deference to making an already long review longer, I must say the ending really made any potential problems with the beginning worth getting through. Fans of mystery/suspense thrillers will really enjoy this story, and I think it does a particularly good job of creating a likable and relatable main character. If you’ve been hesitating over this book, hesitate no longer! I recommend it.

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