Shadowplay by Karen Campbell

I very much enjoyed SHADOWPLAY, the third book by Karen Campbell, a former police officer whose previous profession adds a sense of authenticity to her writing. Anna Cameron, insecure protagonist of THE TWILIGHT TIME and “avenging angel” of AFTER THE FIRE, has just been promoted to Chief Inspector – for Anna, it was either promotion or being sacked, an edge on which she is destined always to be teetering.

Anna’s elevation involves a move to Glasgow’s G division, an area of the town that is polar opposite from the drug-ridden slums of her previous beat. A quiet life is not in store for her, however – she’s immediately embroiled in community policing initiatives, an inappropriate meeting with a councillor and coping with the boss from hell, Chief Superintendent Marion Hamilton. Far from being a mentor to a fellow female high-flyer, Hamilton is bullying and blaming, singling out Anna for special humiliating treatment. The boss is rarely around, being mired in greasy-pole-climbing at police conferences or making connections with local politicians and bigwigs, but the atmosphere of intimidation she engenders at the station affects everyone who has to work there, and their interactions with each other.

Before Anna can react to her odious superior, she is faced with two crises – two teenagers have absconded from a children’s home, and a lady has gone missing from an old people’s home, both on the same night. Most of the rest of the book follows the investigation of the latter case, from Anna’s initial reaction when she immediately visits the facility and is dismayed with the laxity of how it is run, to a gradual escalation of her realisation that much more is involved than a puzzling disappearance- business malpractice, counterfeiting and drugs being but three elements.

Anna’s personal life is constantly on the verge of chaos. She has a strained relationship with her widowed mother, now retired in Spain and living with a “toy boy”. A crisis in her mother’s life derails Anna and distracts her from being able to do her job or deal with the constant jockeying for position and back-stabbing that seems to be going on all around her, with colleagues she thought she could trust turning out to be less than honest – possibly. Anna’s romantic life, in previous novels hopelessly messed-up, takes a different turn in SHADOWPLAY when she encounters someone whom she likes – but seems unsuitable for personal and professional reasons.

I was completely absorbed by this fast-moving yet atmospheric novel for the first half, up until two major plot revelations. The descriptions of the police mechanics are fascinating, and I think that the descriptions of procedure and Anna’s experiences forcing her constantly to prioritise, as well as her viewpoint of society, seem far more plausible to me than as depicted in the typical crime novel, where the cool, controlling detective directs an ordered investigation.

However, about halfway through the book, I felt things ran out of steam a bit, with too much focus on Anna’s various insecurities and other emotions or related actions, and not enough else going on. The Marion Hamilton character, who started out promisingly vivid, peters out, and Anna’s interactions with her two main but bland colleagues, her immediate superior at the station and the head of a CID enquiry, are insufficiently sharp to propel the reader on. During the last quarter, however, the plot lurches into focus and gets quite exciting, as Anna – an old-fashioned, investigative cop at heart – ignores all political expediency and goes full out for untangling a complex series of relationships, business and family, to get to the bottom of it all.

Of all the UK police series being written today, I think Karen Campbell’s has rapidly become my favourite, mainly for its authenticity and for the character of Anna, a convincingly portrayed woman who is ambitious yet not prepared to sacrifice any of her own personal principles in order to smooth her path. For this reason, she’s probably admired by her colleagues more than she realises. I think this series is so far impressively varied (each of the three books has had a very different focus) and well written. I am looking forward to more.

Review first published at Euro Crime, October 2010.

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