Crime Scene: PD VINER The Last Winter of Dani Lancing; LESLEY THOMSON The Detective’s Daughter. Reviewed by Jean Bedford
The not always benign power of memory, and the vagaries of coincidence: these two recent British crime novels are shining examples of the flexibility of the genre.
Every now and then crime novels come along that bend the genre and take it into new possibilities. The Last Winter of Dani Lancing is such a novel, as are Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls. For those of us who like, and are used to, the predictability of mainstream crime fiction, reading these books is a slight shock to the system as well as a delight.
The plot of Dani Lancing isn’t itself so unusual: it’s the clever manipulation of character and narrative time, as well as a touch of the supernatural, that makes it so.
When the novel begins we see Dani as a child, constantly talking and interacting with her father, Jim. The adult Dani guards him as he sleeps:
Dani watches her younger self melt into the shadows of the night. Frozen in time, for a moment longer, is her father. More than twenty years of night terrors and she is the cause … The sight of him, so young and handsome, makes her smile – a sad smile.
Dani has been dead for 20 years.
The novel takes as its main time frame a particular day in December, 2010. Dani’s unsolved multiple rape and murder case has been put on the list of crimes to be reviewed in the light of new forensic procedures and this has brought all those intimately connected with her to a cathartic crisis point.
For Jim, her father, his memories of Dani and her eternal presence begin to tumble over each other in a cascade of recalled events and present experience. For her guilt-ridden mother, Patty, it’s a day when she might prove who murdered her daughter. For Dani’s former ‘boyfriend’, Detective Sergeant Tom Bevans, whose passionate and unrequited love for Dani verges on the obsessive, the day brings anxiety and remorse. For an anonymous man, memories rise up to haunt him.
Dani haunts everyone.
And everyone involved is affected by, and in some cases trying to avenge, what happened to Dani Lancing. In a hotel somewhere, Patty has taken a man prisoner and is cutting him with a scalpel. Tom Bevans is trying to preserve terrible secrets. Jim, who can’t let Dani fully die, feels an increasing level of anxiety and foreboding. A man with a grudge against Tom is plotting his revenge.
The novel uses non-consecutive flashbacks and ‘intermissions’ to set up multiple layers of narrative suspense, gradually uncovering the secret of what happened 20 years ago and revealing why people are acting as they are at present. Dani herself – one of the most convincing ghosts in fiction – can’t remember the full details of her death until the end, which could seem overly convenient for the plot, but in fact is convincing in hindsight when the full circumstances finally come to light.
The narrative loops back and forth to fill in the backstory, coincidences abound and are skilfully handled, but it’s not until the rather melodramatic and staged finale in a cathedral that it all becomes clear to everybody, including Dani.
This is a novel about the power – not always benign – of love and memory; about obsession and remorse; about revenge and its aftermath, as much as it is about a mystery and its solution. But it is also satisfyingly about that.
The book is extremely well-written; the characters are plausible, intense and interesting, there are deft touches of humour and the plot is sound, even if the over-ornate setting somewhat lets the denouement down. It’s still a great read.
The Detective’s Daughter is on the surface a more traditional crime story, though it also uses flashbacks to layer the narrative. It’s again about an unsolved crime in the past, this time the murder of a young mother, Katherine Rokesmith, while out for a walk near the Thames with her small son.
Stella Darnell runs a cleaning service – ‘Clean Slate’ – the way she runs her life: everything neatly in place and according to strict routine. She can’t bear clutter and she really likes to clean and set things right. So it’s only natural that when her father, retired police detective Terry Darnell, dies suddenly, she gets caught up in an attempt to resolve the untidy loose ends left by his death. One of these is the still unsolved murder of Katherine Rokesmith, which the much younger Terry had investigated. Stella has mixed feelings about Terry and they have been more or less estranged for years but she still has occasional fond memories from childhood, which intrude in the form of flashback scenes and underline the development of her character.
Clearing out Terry’s house, Stella finds copies of the old case files from the Rokesmith investigation. She originally intends to shred these, but finds herself drawn into solving the mystery, partly hoping to succeed where Terry had failed. She is possibly unaware of her similarities to her father:
He could delve into the recesses of all manner of lives and expose the unspeakable. Stella too … applied astringents and detergents, wielded brushes and mops, listening without comment or judgement to dilemmas and dramas not dissimilar to those investigated by her father.
Shortly after Terry’s death Isabel Ramsey, one of Stella’s clients, also dies in mysterious circumstances. Stella had personally cleaned for Isabel herself and was fond of the old woman. But as she continues to unravel the facts of the Rokesmith murder, she finds that Isabel had been involved as an eye-witness and that many things were not as they seemed. Before her death, Isabel’s dislocated memories had offered yet another level of mystery to the reader.
Katherine Rokesmith’s young son, Jonathan, four at the time of her death, is the subject of the major flashbacks: both to the day of the murder, when he had been found huddled under a statue, the Leaning Woman, and later to his horrible time at boarding school, where he was bullied, ostracised and renamed Justin due to a clerical error.
Jonathan was not at all a well boy, traumatised by his mother’s death – he had not spoken for six months afterwards – and then, as Justin, provoked by his bullying at school into extreme retaliation. A large part of the finely drawn suspense of the novel is the question of Jonathan/Justin’s present identity. As Stella continues to investigate, she becomes the focus of several potentially suspicious people – including the attractive dentist, Ivor Challoner; her new employee, Jack Harmon, a train driver with some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder who is given to squatting in the houses and apartments of various likely ‘Hosts’; and her ex-boyfriend Paul, who has virtually stalked her since she broke off their relationship.
The ending is both a surprise, and inevitable, with a nice twist in the tail.
What lifts this novel above the usual cold-case-reopened story is its careful and often humorous character delineation as well as the manipulation of narrative time. The adroit psychological portraits of the characters make them stand out vividly and convincingly as individuals and Stella, in particular, is totally believable and unusual. The Detective’s Daughter is a social novel as much as a crime novel – perhaps all the best crime novels are this – and reminds me of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels in its attention to the ironies and vagaries of coincidence and interpersonal relationships and its quirky characterisations.
PD Viner The Last Winter of Dani Lancing Ebury Press 2013 PB 400pp $29.95
Lesley Thomson The Detective’s Daughter Head of Zeus 2013 PB 480pp $29.99
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