by Peter James (Pan Macmillan, 2005)
Prankster Michael Harrison’s friends know just the way to get back at him for all the ill-conceived practical jokes they’ve been at the receiving end of. So when they go on a bender on the occasion of his stag night, with the highlight of the evening being to pack Michael into a coffin, nail it down and half-bury him in a makeshift grave, nobody dreams that anything will go wrong. But it does and how—less than an hour later, the four friends are dead in a head-on traffic collision, the walkie-talkie connecting Michael to the outside world lies in pieces on the road, and the only other person who knos where Michael is has his own reasons to stay silent.
All of this means Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is looking at a missing persons enquiry where, unbeknownst to him and his team, time is running out fast. As the police launch an investigation into the whereabouts of Michael Harrison, Grace’s suspicions alight on Michael’s business partner Mark Warren. And then, there is the case of the frantic fiancée, whose reactions don’t always add up to the tragedy unfolding in her life. Even as the cops try to put the pieces together, Michael struggles desperately to convince whoever is on the other side of the taped-together walkie-talkie unit that his life is in danger. And all the while, water is seeping slowly into his coffin…
Dead Simple is a gripping, fast-paced mystery story, the first of a series featuring Roy Grace. As a reader you have a grandstand view—getting to see how the investigation unfolds, plus witnessing Michael’s panicked, claustrophic, excruciatingly long days buried in a luxurious—though that’s a relative term when you have no food, water or space to move, and you can feel the water level rising under you—coffin. And then you have the so-called best friend and partner, and the big question mark on his motives.
The narration is exciting and keeps the pages turning; indeed, the chapters from Michael’s point of view as he negotiates with the child-like person on the other end of the walkie-talking, convincing him to help, are nerve-wracking. You are drawn into this suspenseful game of will-he-won’t-he when it comes to Michael’s life, and you can’t help biting your nails, hoping that the clock won’t run out on him.
Roy Grace is an intriguing character. The disappearance of his wife some decade or so ago haunts him. So much so that he still keeps a toothbrush in the bathroom (let’s hope he changes it every few months!) and her clothes in the cupboard in the hope that she’ll be back. Which is all very sad and mildly creepy; however, he also goes on two dates in the course of the book, which strikes a somewhat incongruous chord. The author, Peter James, also has an interest in matters paranormal, and that comes through in his main character as well. Grace is not averse to seeking out the services of psychics and mediums, not only hoping for a message from his wife (not that there’s any evidence that she’s departed this earth) but also to help out in cases.
Grace has his warts, but isn’t an unlikeable character overall—his propensity to get distracted by the breasts of a colleague are a serious black mark as far as I’m concerned though. He doesn’t need to be blind; just professional. That said, James doesn’t seem able to draw any female character of note without making them especially ‘beautiful’, a pattern that wears thin after the first couple of times.
Oddly enough, even though this series is set in England, in and around Brighton, the writing feels very American, both the turn of phrase and the use of certain terminology, such as ‘flashlight’. This is explained away by the fact that Peter James worked as a screenwriter in North America, but strikes a discordant chord even so.
As a reader of crime fiction, one looks forward to suspense unfolding, to the ball dropping, to the manner in which our heroes and heroines work their way to a solution. Suffice it to say that Dead Simple employs what can best be summed up as a psychic cop-out to solve part of the mystery that could have otherwise turned out to be a most compelling climax.
The jury is out on whether this is a series worth following, but as a standalone novel and in terms of entertainment value, it is certainly readable.