Book review: The Dentist by Tim Sullivan
The Dentist (A DS Cross Crime Thriller) - Tim Sullivan
It's a rare enough characteristic for a crime fiction police detective to be earnest and methodical rather than a world-weary wildcard maverick, but there are a few antecedents for the DS George Cross in the first book of Tim Sullivan's new detective series, The Dentist. There's a little bit of David Mark's DS McAvoy in Cross's diligence, his not fitting in with colleagues, working by the book with determination to see justice done and not being swayed by office politics or the convenient shortcuts taken by other officers in the Somerset and Avon Police Force in Bristol. There's also evidently a bit of Saga Norén from the Swedish TV series The Bridge in Cross's Asperger's, with his lack of social skills, but an ability to see things differently, look past distractions and focus on details and look for patterns. More than anything though it's perhaps the similar purposeful and determined way that the author draws you into his world that makes this opening Cross investigation so compelling.
Like Saga Norén, you wonder for a while how someone with no apparent ability to participate in any kind of normal social activity or even give a reasonable account for themselves to an interview panel could get on to become a successful detective, but it soon becomes apparent that it's that need for neatness and order that serves Cross well as a detective. He's not one to rest while there are unanswered questions, loose ends, unexplored mysteries, gaps in evidence or things that just don't fit. Or, in this case - and it's the case that is going to be the critical factor in determining whether you're going to take to Cross's methods and personality or not - in his determination to pursue an unusual coincidence where the murder of one person leads to another unsolved murder investigation that it seems obvious must be connected.
That's certainly not immediately obvious however when the first murder is that of a homeless person found dead on the Clifton Downs. A little investigation eventually turns up another homeless person who had an argument and a scuffle with the victim the same evening. That would usually be the end of the matter, but when the identity of the dead man is discovered to be Leonard Carpenter, a formerly well-respected dentist in the community who had disappeared and been declared dead by his family, it seems there might be a little more to this. Cross soon learns that the dentist's wife Hilary also was murdered a number of years ago, the case inexplicably unsolved and dropped. But not dropped by Leonard until he mysteriously disappeared. It's too much of a coincidence and too convenient to pin Leonard's death on a drunk homeless person with confused memories of the night in question. Despite his boss's warnings, DS Cross intends to look into this and the family's issues further.
DS Cross's condition means of course that he can't help but keep doggedly pursuing matters until he is satisfied with resolving the mystery, and no-one, Chief or otherwise is going to divert him from this purpose. They couldn't if they tried and, much to their frustration and experience, they know it. There's a bluntness and a persistence to Cross's actions but it's very different from the more typical maverick cop pursuing his own investigation, as Cross is just following procedure with due diligence, a course of action that is convincingly based on authentic behaviours of someone with his condition. But those behaviours can also be unpredictable. There's no way of knowing how Cross is going to respond to situations and people because it's never conventional, his focus rather on things that he considers to be much more important, and unconstrained by social niceties or even good manners, he is undoubtedly he is right in his prioritisation, even if that doesn't make him popular around people.
This then gives The Dentist very much an edge of unpredictability that is just perfect for the beginning of a new series. The case takes a lot of unexpected turns from where it first started out, Cross figuring that if they can discover who murdered Hilary the wife it might lead to who killed Leonard, the homeless former dentist. There are enough strange unexplained elements in each of the two murder cases to give the detective something to really get to grips with, something that probably only someone with his condition and unique insight might be able to solve. It's no spoiler then to find that the cases are resolved through meticulous adherence to procedural methods rather than any explosive showdowns but with DS Cross you can be sure there are surprises and revelations along the way.
Considering the unerring ease with which he paces and develops characters, leads you through the case and gradually draws you in deeper, it's not a surprise then to discover that Sullivan has worked as a film screenwriter and director, including a stint on the Jeremy Brett The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes series. The Dentist is superbly laid out then, accumulating intrigue, layering in further details about Cross, his background, his habits and relationships with people. This is the whole package as far as crime fiction goes with more than enough originality to suggest that there's the makings of a great new detective series here.