A solicitor from an earlier, more traditional generation, middle-aged Harry Devlin is attempting to come to terms with the flash pace of life in the European Capital of Culture, the “new Liverpool”. Harry and his law partner Jim Crusoe have had to move from their old Victorian office into a new-style building complete with security guards, CCTV, luxury penthouses and fancy plants in the reception area. None of these prevents Harry from receiving a death notice—his own, for Midsummer’s eve in a few days’ time.
As well as his attempts to discover who is behind the threat from among assorted antagonists from his legal past and present, Harry is troubled by reports in the papers of the discovery of the mutilated body of a young model on nearby Waterloo beach. Before long, another woman is found murdered by a similar method. Using his contacts at the coroner’s office and in the local police, Harry digs into the murder cases and begins to discover some clues that bring the crimes uncomfortably close. When Harry’s partner Jim is attacked in the basement car park and severely injured, Harry’s paranoia becomes full-blown; he goes into overdrive to discover the identity of his anonymous correspondent before the deadline, as well as who is responsible for the seaside killings.
My four criteria for enjoying a crime fiction (or any) book are character, plot, sense of place, and atmosphere. Waterloo Sunset delivers on all counts. As well as Harry himself, the book is full of rich minor characters — not least a predatory ex-lover of enigmatic intentions. Particularly poignant is Harry’s old friend Kay (Ka-Yu) Chen; but the assorted local villains, opportunists, old hands, police and court professionals are well-drawn against a witty, astute commentary on the plundering and repackaging of the city’s doubtful historical past for the new enterprise markets of today — and the sad victims the process leaves in its wake.
The themes are cleverly intertwined: although the book is laugh-out loud funny throughout, it does not fail to present the victims, both of crime and of skewed contemporary morality, with empathy. Harry is a self-deprecating but determined protagonist who solves two sets of crimes: one at a cost to his personal happiness; and the other, with the assistance of a surprising but charmingly talented all-rounder, at considerable personal danger.–
Harry Devlin previously featured in a series of novels published between 1991 and 1998. You don’t have to have read these to enjoy Waterloo Sunset (I haven’t, yet). In the gap, Martin Edwards has written another series of (so far) three books set in the Lake District, featuring DCI Hannah Scarlett, who is in charge of a cold-case investigation team, and academic Daniel Kind, who has fled the ivory towers of Oxford for a more naturalistic lifestyle. The Lake District novels, which I highly recommend, are police procedurals with a large dash of local historical themes, whereas Waterloo Sunset is more overtly humorous and satirical. Both series are very strong on characterisation and plot, consisting of a powerful mix of traditional storytelling with an awareness of modern sensibilities and sillinesses.