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Looking Good Dead

by Peter James (Pan Macmillan 2006)

Looking Good Dead is Peter James’s second in the ‘Dead’ series, featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. A hacked, headless body of a young lawyer is discovered in Brighton, putting Grace and his team under intense public scrutiny. Meanwhile, a good samaritan’s (probably misguided, in hindsight) attempt to reunite a lost CD with its owner results in horrific consequences for him and his family.

This story picks up the very day after the events of the previous book, Dead Simple, have screeched to a halt in a deadly car chase through Brighton. Needless to say, Grace isn’t in the good books of the powers-that-be and another potentially-high-profile case is the last thing he needs. But, of course, fate has other plans when a dog walker makes a grisly discovery in the fields.

Complete unrelated to all this, struggling businessman Tom Bryce picks up a CD that a fellow commuter left behind in the train. Rather than pop it in his bag and try and see if he spots the man the next day, he does something incredibly stupid—he inserts the unknown, unlabelled disc into his computer. And his life changes. At first, Bryce is certain that what he’s seeing is an enactment, a staging of a crime. But when he starts getting threatening messages and his computer is remotely wiped, he understands that he has unwittingly got himself into a rather ghastly mess. Now, it must be mentioned here that the blurb of this book reveals quite a lot about what happens to Bryce and his family—someone needs to be fired for writing that blurb, for it spoils quite a bit of the suspense.

Grace’s headless body and Bryce’s anonymous CD lead the cops into the murky waters of snuff filmmaking. An elite club of customers pay handsome amounts to subscribe to this perverted service, whereby they are treated to real-life movies of people being tortured and killed. With poor Tom Bryce, his depressed and alcoholic wife, and two young children having been pulled into this heap, do we brace ourselves for the worst or will Brighton’s sharpest police minds get there in time?

My second outing with James and his creation, Roy Grace, held no suprises. Peter James is a good writer and is clearly skilled at building pace and keep you turning the pages. However, like Dead Simple, the plot and resolution were far from perfect. You need to approach this book like a movie: suspend disbelief and don’t question what you see, and you will be entertained.

Also, call it age if you will, but James’s depiction of women, as in the first book, still leaves something to be desired—I’d like to know more about characters than the fact that they might be “beautiful” or “gorgeous” and what sort of effect they have on the protagonist, even if he happens to be dating that woman. Also, a woman being described as “X’s pretty wife, Y” when X is in hospital as a result of a bullet wound is completely out of context. Otherwise, I felt there is too much description—of people, of places, of procedures, taking away from the tension at points. And I skipped entire sections about the history of Brighton.

Grace is certainly an interesting character. Though his wife’s unsolved disappearance some ten years back affects him deeply, this book sees him take some definite steps towards moving on. That said, one could have done without one whole chapter devoted to sex. Sometimes, allusions and hints are much more satisfying than having things spelt out. Grace’s personal beliefs are also somewhat unusual—he doesn’t mind dabbling in the paranormal and his attempts to get mediums smoke out where his next clue might come from is quite a different story from your usual cynical sceptics that one is used to seeing in crime fiction. However, as a sceptic myself, I’m not fully on board with the paranormal angle. As a crime reader, I feel I want to know the ins and outs of how a crime is solved; a medium pointing in a particular direction feels like a cheat.

Overall, the resolution wasn’t completely convincing. Coincidences played a part in it and it wasn’t hard to guess who the Weatherman—the tech genius behind the snuff movie operation—was. A question mark hangs over the a particular police officer’s decision not to disclose pertinent information at an earlier stage in the investigation. Also, stereotypical “foreign” villains? Really?!

Right, so not perfect, but okay value-for-money entertainment.

RATING: 5.5/10
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