Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James Series
By Janet WebbApril 30, 2020
In 1993, Deborah Crombie published A Share in Death, her first Kincaid and James mystery. In October 2019, she released her 18th in the series, A Bitter Feast. As I discuss why this series is utterly compelling, beware of spoilers!
Review: A Bitter Feast
A Share in Death, set in a “luxurious Yorkshire time-share,” felt like one of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries, with a closed cast of characters and a restricted setting. Scotland Yard Superintendent Duncan Kincaid is gifted a week in an up-market time-share by his cousin, who is unable to go away at the appointed time. Unfortunately, Kincaid’s vacation quickly turns into a busman’s holiday when a member of the staff is found dead in the pool. After a second death, Kincaid reaches out to his assistant, Sergeant Gemma James, to have her do some off-site research. I re-read it recently and realized that the Marple comparison was off and that all the elements that make Crombie’s series so irresistible were there in microcosm. To quote from the New York Times Book Review:
“Charming…An intricate puzzle plot…To balance Kincaid’s cool reserve as an imperturbable observer of human folly, Ms. Crombie gives him a warm, outgoing sergeant in young Gemma James. Like everything else in this first mystery, it’s a well-calculated move that pays off smartly.”
A long-running mystery series with a couple who are connected on and off the job is inevitably going to be compared to J.D. Robb’s In Death series. Unlike Eve and Roarke’s combustible and fierce courtship, Duncan and Gemma are first and foremost, in the early books, comfortable colleagues, although there are clues that their relationship will evolve beyond their daily after-work drink at the pub. Duncan is divorced, 10 years older than his assistant, who is a divorced mum with a little boy: she’s forever juggling. Duncan always orders wine and can’t understand Gemma’s fondness for lager and lime.
“Practice.” Gemma took a good swallow of her drink and grinned. They sat quietly for a few minutes, the pub’s Saturday night clamor eddying around them, until Gemma pushed her chair back a bit and sighed. “I do need to be getting home, though. Toby will be missing his mum.”
“Yes.” Kincaid imagined the welcome awaiting Gemma, and for an instant envy ran through him. He shook it off and forced a smile. “I wish…” What did he wish?
But down-to-earth Gemma has the perfect riposte (courtesy of her old mum), “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”
Like In Death, with each book, the cast of characters enlarges. We meet Kincaid’s immediate superior, Chief Superintendent Denis Childs, in A Share in Death. He’s described as “an intelligent man whom Kincaid liked personally and respected professionally.” Childs is a vital part of each succeeding book. It’s noteworthy the plots become more intricate as the series evolves and some storylines stretch through three or four books.
In All Shall Be Well Kincaid’s terminally ill neighbor, Jasmine Dent, is murdered. We learn more about Kincaid’s personal life while he investigates his friend’s passing. As readers, we end up understanding, and missing, Jasmine Dent, very much. This is a feature of Crombie’s work: the “dead” are not plot devices, rather their stories reverberate beyond their demise.
Leave the Grave Green shows Crombie’s penchant for mysteries that hinge on decades-ago-events come to the fore. Julia Swann née Asherton’s estranged husband Connor is “found floating in a Thames River lock.” The book description shares, “New lies cover older lies, as Kincaid finds himself dangerously drawn to Julia Swann, and Gemma must confront her own troubling feelings for Kincaid.”
Is Mourn Not Your Dead not an evocative and enticing title? Crombie’s titles are very much like fellow mystery-writer Julia Spencer-Fleming’s titles: they draw readers into a complex world. In Mourn Not Your Dead, a commander in the Metropolitan Police is found beaten to death, in his own home, making it all the more unsavory. The relationship between Kincaid and James becomes complicated.
Class differences are an aspect of the series that Dreaming of the Bones brings to light. Kincaid is upper-class, although not an aristocrat, whereas his partner James is the daughter of a baker. We meet Kincaid’s former wife, Dr. Victoria McClellan, a Cambridge don. By now Kincaid and James are partners and lovers.
In Kissed a Sad Goodbye their past cases impinge on their day-to-day lives. Unbeknownst to him, Kincaid fathered a son, Kit. Balancing getting to know his son, whilst investigating the murder of a lovely young woman discovered in an East London park, is not easy. Another hallmark appears: Crombie meticulously describes London neighborhoods. If you are a tourist, you can use her mysteries as a guidebook. Right down to the “local.”
The setting of A Finer End A is a revered city, Glastonbury. A request for help from Kincaid’s cousin Jack brings him there.
Gemma is no longer Duncan’s assistant in And Justice There Is None. Quoting from the book description,
Gemma James is adjusting to professional and personal changes that include her eagerly sought promotion to the rank of inspector—and a future now intricately entwined with Duncan Kincaid. But her new responsibilities are put to the test when she is placed in charge of a particularly brutal homicide: The lovely young wife of a wealthy antiques dealer has been found murdered on fashionable Notting Hill.
For the first, but not the last time in the series, Duncan and Gemma do not see eye to eye. They are both extraordinarily talented investigators so this adds another level of complexity.
The setting of Now May You Weep is Scotland, specifically the Highlands, home to many a whiskey distillery. Gemma’s old friend Hazel has entreated her to visit. Not only does Crombie place her stories in novel settings, she describes activities that are fascinating, although these peripheral stories are never an info-dump.
In a Dark House Same case, Kincaid and James are brought into an inquiry through different paths. The murder victim is a high-ranked policeman. Internal investigations are another thread throughout the series. One investigator is official (Duncan), one not (Gemma).
Kincaid hopes that a visit to his family in Nantwich, Cheshire (in Water Like A Stone) will be a respite for him and Gemma. But it’s anything but: family tensions abound, a mummified infant is discovered and as they say, “Murder never takes a holiday.” A deeper understanding of Kincaid’s past emerges and the canals of Nantwich play a part.
Where Memories Lie has a Holocaust plot as an underpinning, another example of Crombie’s talent for bringing the unsolved mysteries of the past blazing into the present.
According to the book description, “Crombie dazzles once more with Necessary as Blood—a relentlessly suspenseful tale of a vanished mother, a murdered father, and a helpless, endangered child.” This is a succinct summary of the mystery but the personal is omnipresent. In this book, Duncan and Gemma marry and they become connected with the “endangered” child in a surprising way.
No Mark Upon Her has the couple investigating a death in “the family,” the police department where they both work. An “Olympic rowing hopeful” is found murdered, but rowing is her hobby whereas her professional home is Scotland Yard. Is all as it should be at Scotland Yard? This touches Gemma and Duncan personally. It is noteworthy that they have both advanced professionally: Kincaid is a Detective Superintendent and James is a Detective Inspector.
Kincaid is on paternity leave in The Sound of Broken Glass. Gemma has an assistant, Detective Sergeant Melody Talbot. Will she be Peabody to James’s Dallas? This is another past/present mystery.
I quote myself from my Criminal Element review of To Dwell in Darkness.
To Dwell in Darkness is a powerful story that forcefully lands the reader in a confused, smoke-filled, public arena of terror. No back story is needed to comprehend the insanity of a bomb going off at a public concert at St. Pancras International, a renovated railroad station. But like the best stories of J.D. Robb, P.D. James, and Louise Penny, knowing the cast of characters adds to the reader’s enjoyment.
Deborah Crombie conducts the interwoven strands of her 16th novel like a maestro wielding a baton. Kincaid and Gemma’s family, work colleagues, and friends, including their oldest son Kit, play a pivotal role in unraveling the twisted strands that envelop the bombing.
Garden of Lamentations was released in early 2017. Readers raced to read it, to see if some of the unexplained threads of To Dwell in Darkness were tied up. Her most recent book, A Bitter Feast, came out in 2019.
The complex, fascinating world of Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James deserves all the superlatives lavished on the series. All hail to Ms. Crombie for her vision and insight. Now start reading!
*Author Photo Courtesy of Steve Ullathorne.