Here is the Cambridge of coffee shops and pubs by the river – a river, however, that in the first chapter is the recipient of a dead body. Whether or how this body is related to the events that are subsequently told is something that readers can only guess, as next we meet Alice and Richard Moran, the sibling owners of a plastic surgery clinic, their assistant Laura Spence and her friend Victoria, who is a receptionist at the neighbouring dentist's surgery. There are unsettling dynamics between these individuals and their other acquaintances, who are presented as if in brief glimpses – Laura seems to be Richard's lover, but how volatile is their relationship, and what is Alice's seemingly strange role? Tensions simmer, ultimately with fatal results.
Most of the rest of the book is told from the point of view of DC Goodhew, a newly qualified, young police detective close to his grandmother – actually more of a combination of friend and mother. He's also a local, so knows a couple of those possibly involved in the crime from his schooldays, a fact he does not hesitate to exploit. Goodhew teeters on the brink of smug – he is rich, privately educated, single, bright, handsome and presented in an uncritically admiring way by the author. Much to the annoyance of his boss, DI Marks, Goodhew does pretty much what he wants, which includes anonymously leaving crucial evidence in crimes on Marks's desk. Irritated but impressed with Goodhew despite himself, Marks decides to pair up the young man with a more experienced and somewhat flash colleague, Kincaide, to instil a bit more discipline. Even so Goodhew swans about interviewing witnesses and searching flats off his own bat, acting more like a PI than a DC, while Kincaide focuses on non-work-related matters or fades out of the action. Eventually, Goodhew begins to put the pieces together, and this is where the book becomes most satisfying, as the effects of the crime fan out and involve more people and some deep family history.
Although I enjoyed this book, which is strong on atmosphere but weaker on substance, I had to suspend belief somewhat. The police don't take statements or advise suspects of their rights; suspects seem naively willing to be interviewed and voluntarily incriminate themselves without asking for a lawyer; and much of the narrative is told as if it were a camera in close-up, omitting 'wider-angle' information, leaving facts to be revealed later that had been left out of earlier descriptions.
If you are willing to inhabit the author's universe, taking the action at her pace without insisting on too much realism, the novel is a satisfying read in which the dynamics of the group of people touched by crime and general nastiness is well-realised. The eventual revelations are quite chilling, even if there are rather too many loose ends as well as the "solution falling into the lap" aspect. I'm somewhat undecided about this book, partly because of the vague and frankly unrealistic police aspects – and partly because of the main protagonist. If Goodhew becomes less idealised and more fleshed-out in future I would find him more bearable than his current rather insubstantial persona. Potentially, the start of an interesting series – but for me, the jury is still out.