The second in the series featuring DI Staffe (William Wagstaffe) of the City of London police is an atmospheric crime novel set among the rich financiers who always seem one step ahead even while credits crunch and bubbles burst. The story starts out with Elena, a cool and intelligent Russian beauty, who is possibly a prostitute, on solitary weekend in the country, away from her usual haunts. Elena thinks she is in control of events in her life and that of a small circle of friends, but her perception is wrong. Before Staffe and his colleagues can get very far with investigating the crime at which Elena is the centre, other tragic events occur.
Willing Flesh is a pared-down novel compared with its predecessor, Suffer The Children. Here, there is no mention of Staffe’s obsessive investigation into his parents’ deaths in Spain, his ownership of several London houses, and only the faintest reference to his troubled sister Marie and her son Harry. This reduction in the number of simultaneous themes provides a welcome focus. As well as investigating a series of crimes, Staffe is increasingly keen on his girlfriend Sylvie, asking her to marry him – but he seems incapable of relinquishing his close (too close?) friendship with Rosa. Rosa, it turns out, can help Staffe’s investigation but at a cost to her own safety, so Sylvie finds herself providing a refuge for someone who may be her rival.
Willing Flesh is a readable novel, despite being written in the present tense, which for me always seems rather self-conscious. The plot is by no means convincing, however. I find it hard to credit that Staffe, a rather Lord Peter Wimsey-type character, can be a police detective yet carry out his own investigation independently of his colleagues, with no comeback from anyone. This means he can, for example, break into suspects’ houses and steal crucial letters, only telling the official investigation about them much later on – mysteriously, everyone from subordinates to superiors tolerates Staffe’s parallel, almost amateur, activities which constantly obscure the truth and seem to me to have little point. As the book reaches a climax, Staffe is aware that he and Sylvie are in danger so asks a colleague to tail him in his car, but leaves her unguarded so that someone can just walk into her house which is apparently not even locked. The dénouement in a boat (I can say no more without spoiling the plot) is not credible to me.
Another problem is that there are far too many boilerplate suspects – the foreign entrepreneur, the city businessman and the Russian suspected drug dealer are insufficiently different from each other to involve the reader, along with clichéd characters such as the rich young drug addict, the tart with a heart, and a “cor-blimey” dad.
The author is an academic who teaches writing, and some passages in this novel are delicately moving. However, I feel that he isn’t very interested in the police procedural aspects, so for me the failure to bother with even basic attention to reality conspires to undermine the credibility of the whole. The book is certainly readable, but I think this series would be better if the somewhat snobbish Staffe operated in the same universe as everyone else rather than being somehow superior to the normal rules of life that apply to his colleagues.