Dead Pretty - David Mark
Dead Pretty - David Mark *****
Leaving aside the US variety for the moment (a different breed entirely), it's fairly evident that all the best continuing UK criminal investigator series have a charismatic lead character and their own particular patch to work on; a cityscape that usually feeds in to a large extent to make the characters who they are. You have all that in Ian Rankin's John Rebus, Denise Mina's Alex Morrow, Val McDermid's Tony Hill and Carol Jordan and Mark Billingham's Tom Thorne novels. Those books need a little more than that however, and - aside from the nature of their investigations (by no means the least important element) - it helps when there is a good team built up around them. David Mark's DS McAvoy series also clearly has what it takes, even if none of those elements fit the template in the conventional way.
Take also the setting of Mark's crime fiction series. It's not London, Glasgow or Edinburgh, it's Hull, but Mark's writing and descriptions of the setting nonetheless make this a compelling location. There's a poetry to the writing, an evocative descriptiveness in his use of metaphor, but it doesn't attempt to beautify Hull or make it seem exotic. In Dead Pretty (the title says it all really), the North Sea location isn't particularly relevant, but it is the perfect backdrop for an unusual series of murders that Detective Sergeant McAvoy is investigating. One passage for example that describes how from a given location you can see all weather systems operating at the same time is clever and witty (wearing flip-flop and carrying an umbrella), but it also sets the scene for the climatic and seismic shifts that take place in the criminal world, and in the everyday lives of the main characters there.
Neither is Detective Aector McAvoy by any means your typical charismatic maverick investigator who plays by their own rules and relentlessly pursues a case against the advice and orders of the top brass. The tall Scottish police detective is quietly spoken, likely to blush at some of the awkward situations he has to deal with, doesn't want to make life difficult for his colleagues, but is firm when he needs to be and has the bulk and temperament to control and use the violent impulses that take over his sensitive nature. He's a mass of contradictions, married to Roisin, a little firebrand Irish traveller, passionate in his private life, quietly thinking through his cases, letting them touch deeply, waiting for the moment when that deep contemplation makes connections and leads to an unexpected breakthrough. In today's police force, it's rare that you find someone with the same degree of empathy, who is given the time to get the required results in his own way and without breaking a few heads.
Perhaps that's because he has a superior like Trish Pharaoh. It would be difficult to briefly describe the kind of character that David Mark has developed here. She's a fully rounded creation, human, complex, yet completely unpredictable, not least in how Pharaoh's personal and family life interacts in rather awkward and inconvenient ways with her professional life. Perhaps more than her Scottish DS, she's the personification of Hull itself, blowing hot and cold, formidable and forbidding is appearance, yet beneath the surface, warm, open and approachable. Reading Dead Pretty, you could almost let the crime investigation go and just delight in David Mark's wonderful exploration of these personalities and in how they interact. You couldn't say that quite so much about all those other great UK crime writers.
It's a bonus then that the actual crime investigation covered in Dead Pretty is an intriguing one, but that's no suprise either considering how much effort has gone into the creation of these characters and the descriptions of the world they operate in. The main concern for the Humberside police force is the brutal murder of one young girl and the disappearance of another. McAvoy feels that there's a connection between them, and the nature of the killing suggests a disturbing fetishism in the mutilation of the first girl's body. Another line of inquiry leads to suspicions of a serial killer being involved in vigilante killings where justice hasn't been served in the way it ought to be by the authorities. There's even a suggestion that the two investigations might be tenuously linked.
David Mark's writing and descriptions of the crimes and the violence that take place is vivid. Again, it's not pretty, but it doesn't glorifying the gruesome details either, but rather brings them vividly into focus, relating the crime to the surroundings and the lives of the characters. Inevitably, the police officers' personal lives become intertwined with the suspects in a way that complicates the investigation considerably. Pharaoh in particular is acting out of character this time, smitten with one high profile figure of interest to the police that she should be keeping well away from. It's not helping the investigation and McAvoy is getting rather annoyed with her behaviour - in fact, it's getting to him more than it should. It's not just the usual background detail then and clichéd family drama, but one that adds a level of complexity to the characters and the relationships between them, so that even when the twists are played out and the case wrapped up, the impact has reverberations that will carry through to the next book.
Dead Pretty by David Mark is published by Mulholland Books on 28th January 2016