Broadchurch by Erin Kelly is a small town murder mystery based on the television series from Chris Chibnall (available September 16, 2014).
At its core, this is a police procedural. A dead body has been found, obviously murdered. Detectives need to figure out who did it and why. Once they do, if they do, apprehend the culprit. But there is so much more than that going on.
All of the action takes place in a small town. The good thing about small towns is that everybody knows everybody else. It’s also the bad thing about small towns. At first no one can believe someone they know could have done this. It must be an outsider. But as the investigation drags on, they start looking at each other differently. Every action and word becomes suspect, sinister.
A big city Detective Inspector is leading the investigation. Alec Hardy’s got the experience, the know-how. What he doesn’t know is how to navigate this small town. He’s brusque, rude even. No one on the team likes his style. Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, as his reluctant second in command, gets the brunt of it.
She’s barely holding it together. Danny was her son’s best friend and her best friend’s son. As a detective she knows what questions she needs to ask and just who should be questioned, whether she likes it or not. And Miller does manage to keep up with Hardy. Not only keep up with but stand up to when necessary. Ellie’s a mum. And that doesn’t just mean the soft, nurturing part. She has the grit and stamina to keep going, protect herself and those close to her while ferreting out the truth.
Kelly uses multiple points of view to tell the story. Since Hardy and Miller have such different personalities and styles, it made sense that the author would choose to let the reader into their heads. Hardy is carrying a lot of secrets and emotions around. What kept me from thinking he was nothing but a jerk was learning what was inside the policeman:
To one side of the door frame Danny’s height has been recorded through the years, inked on the wall from his fourth birthday to a couple of months ago. The first few dates and measurements are in adult handwriting but most are in Danny’s own, a round childish scrawl slowly evolving into a distinct hand. The lines come to an abrupt halt somewhere near Hardy’s elbow. Heavy sadness pierces his professional armour and he sinks on to the bed and lets his head drop into his hands. For some people tears dam behind the eyeballs but when Hardy wants to cry he has to hold them in using the back of his throat. He sometimes feels it’s the only strong muscle in his body.
When he looks up again, Beth is on the landing, staring right at him. He’s seen that expression before, on another mother, and he has to turn his face away. It’s not the grief he can’t handle. It’s the trust, the unquestioning trust she has already put in him.
Miller has the inside track with the people of the town and the victim’s family. I was glad to get the first-hand information watching Ellie question people rather than have to “listen” to her tell Hardy what she’s been doing.
But the author goes way beyond these two. She spends a lot of time with Danny’s parents, Beth and Mark. Early on, Beth’s reaction to finding out her son isn’t where he’s supposed to be is spot on.
Her pulse doubles its pace as the first cold trickle of panic begins. She tells herself to stay calm, that it’s probably nothing, but her fingers slip on the keypad when she pulls up Danny’s number on her phone. Even as it goes straight to voicemail she resolves to keep it breezy because she doesn’t want him to think he’s in trouble, although if she finds out he’s bunking off, God help her, she’ll – ‘Danny, it’s Mum,’ she says after the beep. ‘So you’re not at school, can you give me a call straight away, sweetheart, just want to know where you are.’
But even while she’s talking her mind is running ahead of her and her next call, one second after ringing off, is to Jack Marshall at the paper shop to check that Danny did his round earlier in the morning. Jack tells her that Danny didn’t turn up. He didn’t call. This has never happened before. Beth cannot conceive a situation that would make Danny miss his paper round.
She keeps the next call short to free up the line for Danny. ‘Mark, it’s me, ring me now.’
A reporter from London who latches onto the story is a big point of view character. Other locals whose point of view we get are Danny’s sister, the newsagent, the local newspaper staff, Tom—Ellie’s son and Danny’s friend, a coworker of Danny’s father, a strange woman who lives in a caravan. There may be a few more. Some of them worked for me, others seemed like overkill.
I was kept guessing right up to the end—and I saw the television show. My excuse is that occasionally a decision is made to change the end of a story when it changes media (I’m not saying if that was done here or not.). The shifts in point of view added to the misdirection. You see, even the nicest person keeps certain facts about themselves hidden. Some of these secrets are worse than others, but keeping any secrets when an eleven-year-old boy has been murdered becomes suspicious.
What worked the best for me was the relationship between Hardy and Miller. Making opposites work together isn’t a new idea. Books, movies and television are full of these partnerships—some better than others. Done well it’s a great way to show more than one side of the story. Here it is done well. I also appreciated that there was not even a hint of potential romantic involvement. It’s just too easy a trap to fall into, and the writer(s) didn’t take the bait.
The television show has been renewed. I hope that means we’ll get another Broadchurch book as well.
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Debbie Meldrum reads just about everything she can get her hands on. She was the short fiction editor for Apollo's Lyre and the Editor in Chief of the Pikes Peak Writers NewsMag. She's currently putting the finishing touches on her first novel.
Read all of Debbie Meldrum's posts for Criminal Element.