Fresh Meat: No Place to Die by Clare Donoghue

No Place to Die by Clare Donoghue is a procedural thriller where a retired policeman and a young girl both go missing at the same time (available June 9, 2015).

Certain openings cause readers to keep reading. No Place to Die combines three hooks in the first few pages. First, a quote from Edgar Allen Poe that tells us that someone is inexorably coming closer to death, through circumstances that are filled with dread . . . and they’re running out of time. The second, a glimpse into the work life of a senior detective sergeant – who happens to be a woman. Shades of Helen Mirren’s Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison and Gillian Anderson’s police detective Stella Gibson come to the fore as Senior Detective Sergeant Jane Bennett is tasked to lead a widening investigation. Women officers have an awkward time of it within police precincts, which makes their stories all the more interesting. Lastly, the domestic disappearance that makes no sense… or had there been clues all along that all was not well?

It is no wonder that so many nightmares involve the fear of impending, inescapable death. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum captures that chilling, heart-sinking experience.

I thrust my arms wildly above and around me in all directions. I felt nothing: yet dreaded to move a step, lest I should be impeded by the walls of a tomb.

For Clare Donoghue to open with this epigraph from Poe signals the reader to hold on tight, it’s going to be a viscerally scary ride. The story unfolds day by day, with the panicked thoughts of entombed victims spliced into a complex police procedural. The personal immediately bleeds into the professional when Jane interviews her friend and former colleague Sue Leech about the sudden disappearance of Sue’s husband Mark Leech. Mark has recently retired from the force, so Jane has to force herself to remember the implicit rules of investigating, as taught to her by her boss and mentor Detective Inspector Mike Lockyer.

His position was clear: allowing personal feelings into a case clouded your judgement and lead to mistakes. Not that he had observed his own rules. His behaviour on the Stevens case had made him a poster child in Lewisham nick for ‘what not to do’.

The nature of crime solving is fitting clues into an explainable overall pattern. Anyone who has ever struggled with a recalcitrant puzzle knows the feeling of trying to force a piece to fit. So it is with Jane, working under unusual strain, as she manages her first solo case without the advice and counsel of her mentor Mike Lockyer:

“How’s it going?” he asked.

“Nothing so far, sir,” she said, trying to catch his eye, to see if he was really listening. “We’ve found a wire with an AV receptor and hollow tubing. I’ve asked Chris to get the GPR down here. It might turn out to be nothing – fly-tipping – but we have to check, don’t you think?”

“Sure,” Lockyer said, “anything else?”

Well, at least that confirmed what Jane suspected: that her boss was barely listening to a word she said, let alone computing the information.

Tragically, Jane’s worst fears are realized: the presence of audio visual equipment, wires, and hollow tubing means that a young girl was buried alive and her death throes were observed – and manipulated – by her killer. Why else would he or she have provided Maggie Hungerford with air?

It didn’t make any sense. Unless, of course, her suffering had provided some kind of twisted entertainment. Jane turned her attention to the wire and what she knew she would find at the end of it. A tiny camera.

Inevitably Jane’s case bleeds into the challenges of her home life. She’s a single mother of a bright, forthright autistic son. Jane’s parents, particularly her mother, are accustomed to stepping up to fill in when Jane’s work demands multiply. Jane thinks of this when she meets with the victim’s parents, immensely proud of Maggie’s professional choices and happy to talk about her (in that painful void between hope and despair, before the police confirm their daughter’s death). Jane’s mother, Celia Bennett, “had never been thrilled about Jane joining the force.” It is here that the dreaded home/work continuum, constantly a factor in mysteries about women on the force, less often the case for men in similar circumstances, is woven into the story. Celia Bennett does not see Jane’s professional life as matching well with her duties as a mother. In Mrs. Bennett’s opinion: “It was a man’s job, or certainly a job for someone without the kind of responsibilities she had.” What Jane knows, what she sees in the struggles of her boss Mike Lockyer, to come to grips with a painful case, is that for coppers, their work affects them – it bleeds into their home lives, because they care for the dead as if they were still living.

As the cases start to merge and morph, Jane reexamines all the evidence to prove her hypothesis. She analyzes her conversations with Sue Leech (and trades on her personal knowledge of the Leech family in so doing).

To anyone else, Sue would have appeared to have been candid about her marriage to Mark, but Jane had known the couple for a long time and a doubt was nagging at her, blurring her focus. It was like a whisper lost at the end of every sentence, a truth not quite told. It didn’t make any sense. Sue was an ex-copper. What was she holding back?

 The devil is in the details: Clare Donoghue’s precise, personal details add shading and colour to her portrait of Jane Bennett. As her colleague Mike Lockyer gradually inserts himself into the case as he regains his professional stride, Jane struggles against the inbred tendency to discount her leadership role. Jane centers herself in order to tie together the complicated threads of the interwoven cases.

She had been running scenarios in her mind for the past hour. She had even braved Lewisham High Street, pacing back and forth in the sunshine, blending the cacophony of traffic and people into a white noise. It helped her to focus and lay the facts out in her mind.

 As Jane Bennett plays with and discards various theories, the reader is drawn into her unexpected opportunity: to lead and solve a complicated case, stepping up where in the past she would have respectfully stood aside. She and Lockyer visit their boss Roger together. The delicate dance of respect and authority is one that illuminates both the mystery and the Venn diagram that encompasses Jane and Mike Lockyer’s tenuous personal and professional partnership.

“Come on,” Lockyer said, standing. “This is enough for the warrant. You don’t need the documents. Let’s go and see Roger,” he said, already walking away. Jane pushed back her chair and followed him. As they passed Franks’s and Whitemore’s desks, Whitemore’s hand shot up as if he was in school. “Boss,” he said. 

“Yes,” she and Lockyer said in unison. Whitemore looked from one to the other until Lockyer stepped back and gestured to Jane.

 Jane Bennett is in the driver’s seat and the reader is in good hands as No Place to Die races to its surprising, thrilling conclusion. Not every personal strand in Jane’s personal and professional life is tacked down tight: inevitably, readers will look forward to more Mike Lockyer (and Jane Bennett) mysteries. No Place to Die is another spine-tingling mystery with complex, three-dimensional characters from suspense master Clare Donoghue.

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Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

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