Have you ever read the first 100 pages of a book and given up? That is what I nearly did with this one. But I persevered, and I am glad I did. The remaining 250 pages more than make up for the weak start.
The plot is a staple one, that of a serial killer in a Cambridge University college (this one called Ariel). As the book opens, a female undergraduate has been horribly murdered. It turns out that she is the third person to have been killed in less than 3 years. DCI Withers is now assigned to the case, having previously been sidelined for trying to convince his boss that the previous two deaths at the same college were related. Now that a third woman has been killed, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that one person, dubbed by the unimaginative media “the Cambridge Butcher”, is responsible. As well as the Withers back-story, we also get to know the group of undergraduates at Ariel who were in the victims’ circle. They are a disparate group, rather too Evelyn Waugh for my taste. A third aspect to the narrative is Matthew Denison, a forensic psychiatrist who is an old university friend of Withers and who is called in not only to examine the victims’ bodies but also to help investigate the crimes from the perspective of the mind and motivation of the killer(s). He has a very bland domestic set up with an always-understanding woman called Cass, which I could certainly have done without.
After about 100 pages of this I was getting quite bored and finding it hard to fix (or care about) the half-dozen or so examples of privileged youth who are presumably intended to be the chief suspects for the murders. However, when one of them becomes traumatised and hospitalised by having witnessed the third murder, as well as being a suspected perpetrator, the book begins to grip. And the grip continues to tighten, as we travel through a case of multiple personality disorder while Matthew tries to disentangle objective truth from present and past traumas. Suddenly, the story of the events surrounding all three murders is told chronologically, which brings the whole book into focus as the characters shift into three dimensions, and their reactions gel. I became more and more absorbed, as the temperature dropped lower and lower (figuratively and literally), and twist after twist caught me on the hop. In the end, I would say this novel is almost Scandinavian in quality as a piece of crime fiction, and that is praise indeed.