Crime thrillers aren't usually a genre known for their excellent writing, unless I'm reading the wrong books. Whilst there are some exciting writers working within it, they're not generally the kind of books you'd pick up for the quality of their writing, more for the quality of the story. That alone makes Jim Kelly's "Death Wore White" something of a surprise and something well worth picking up, as he manages both.
One wintry evening on the Norfolk coast, DI Shaw and DS Valentine are investigating a report of a toxic container which is about to wash ashore. At the beach, they find something more than they expected when a dead man floats ashore in an inflatable raft. Worse is to come when they investigate a queue of traffic stuck behind a fallen pine tree to find a murder victim in the driver's seat of the first car. There are very few clues as to either crime, especially the latter where the murderer seems to have escaped through deep snow without leaving any footprints.
Worse is to follow when they discover another murder victim half buried in the sand a little way off shore where the cockle pickers go about their business. Could all these murders be related? They also have the usual issues that come with being a relatively new partnership. Valentine had been Shaw's father's partner a decade before and resents being subordinate to a much younger man. Shaw, in turn, knows that the case that ended his father's career may well have been messed up by Valentine's sloppy procedural work, so he's making sure such things don't happen to him as well.
It all sounds fairly standard, so it was quite a surprise to open up the book and find that the first line of the story was a skilfully done and very colourful metaphor. This wasn't to be the only time through the book I was shocked by the quality of the writing, although it was perhaps the one that most surprised me, as I hadn't been expecting something this good in a book of this type. The thing that was especially noticeable as I went through the book was that none of Kelly's similes and metaphors ever came across as strained. His use of them was always natural, never seeming like he was simply putting them in to appear like a better writer. Every one of them was natural and appropriate without ever jarring on the nerves because they felt out of place.
The other aspect of Jim Kelly's writing that really stuck out was the colour. He doesn't give a lot of detail to describing how people and places look in terms of features, but he gives everything a splash of colour. The overall effect of Kelly's writing is much like a television screen. If you stand too close, all you see are dots of colour, but if you step back a little, you get to see the whole picture. The details appear as if you're moving back from the screen, slightly blurred at first, but soon resolving themselves into recognisable images.
The story doesn't quite match the quality of the writing, but it doesn't fall too far short. There are enough murders happening in a number of different ways to make sure things stay quite interesting. Shaw and Valentine are juggling several cases in the present that may or may not be linked as well as having past issues to contend with to keep the pace moving along quite quickly. You get to see pretty much every aspect of police work throughout the story, if only briefly in some cases, but Kelly doesn't spend too much time on the procedural side of things. Instead, he prefers to stick with the investigative aspects, perhaps correctly guessing that the reader will find this more interesting and it makes for a better story.
The one thing that didn't feel quite right about the story were the links between many of the characters. I can accept that in a small Norfolk town there is a chance that most people will know each other, but it seemed that each character had links to several others in carrying ways. Although this certainly helped spin more of a web of intrigue, for me it all seemed a little too coincidental and unrealistic and it's the same kind of links that helped spoil my enjoyment of Clare Curzon's "Off Track" some time ago.
Fortunately, unlike that book, it doesn't spoil the story here, as there are so many things going on that character linkage is always likely and there's enough else going on to distract the reader from this one aspects. Despite my minor concerns, this is still a very good story and leaves things open so that you can see how the series may continue. My over-riding memory of the book will be how well written it was and how beautiful some of the use of language is throughout. If this is a genre you've read before, I would urge you to check out "Death Wore White", as you probably won't have read it written this well. Even with a lowest price of £2.54 plus postage from the Amazon Marketplace, this is well written enough to be worth the money and it's essential borrowing if you find a copy in your library.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk