Detective Chief Superintendent Fran Harmer is struggling to juggle her important career and the care of her aging parents, who live far away in Devon while Fran is in Kent. Her boss and long-term colleague, Mark Turner, realises this and refers her to a new case which will hopefully make her life a little more manageable. The new case involves investigating a two year old crime, which left a woman, known as Elise, in a permanent coma. Although no-one has been able to find out who she is or why she was attacked, she does have a visitor - a University professor called Michael Pitt who visits her regularly who tried to revive her at the scene. Meantime, a young girl is abducted and Fran is still having to take time off work to help out with her parents. On top of that, a relationship seems to be blooming with Mark. Can she manage to keep everything under control and solve the crimes at the same time?
Fran Harmer is not your average, thirty-something, successful female detective. Instead, she has been through the wringer of life and has really proved herself. Now though, she is considering retirement as the only way to cope with her aging parents and, going through the menopause, she is concerned that she can no longer cope with her job. This could make her less attractive to your average reader. Nevertheless, it makes a pleasant change to read about someone with a slightly different outlook on life for once, especially because she is a combination of smart and clever, while having all sorts of hang-ups underneath. This is the first book in a series and, as a start, it does seem as though the series could have plenty of promise, especially as the role of Fran has been so carefully built upon.
The problem with this careful character-building is that it has been done to the detriment of the story. The first half of the book describes in great detail how Fran is forced to drive backwards and forwards from Devon all the time, how her parents mis-use her, how she never manages to get enough sleep, and generally how she is feeling as though she needs to be put out to grass - especially when her hot flushes attack her at inopportune moments. The main crime of the book, that of the coma victim, is glossed over to the extent I wondered if it would ever get going. I'm old enough to be able to sympathise a little with Fran and her problems, but, for a work that is supposedly crime fiction, I thought the characterisation was overkill. The author would have done much better to weave the crime in with the personal element, rather than leave it until the last half of the book. Many readers are likely to be put off reading any further before the real issues are dealt with.
When the crime story really does get going, it is a good read, mainly because so much starts to happen all at the same time. This is probably a very good example of exactly how a crime investigation takes place. Nothing much happens for a considerable amount of time, followed by everything packed into two or three days. Nevertheless, this is a work of crime fiction and, as such, a little leeway can be taken to ensure that the pacing is much better than it was here. The long conversations between Fran and Mark, and Fran and her junior officer, were a little tedious at times because they were so basic. It didn't help that the conversations often went on for so long that it became difficult to follow exactly who was saying what. Again, it's probably a good example of how things are really done - but most readers don't want to know all about the tedious side of police work, unless it quickly leads to a break.
On the plus side, it does show that Judith Cutler has done plenty of research. One of the positive things to come out of all the tedium is that she shows the hierarchy of police work and how it can be necessary to use your wits to short-circuit all the 'rules and regulations'. For once, the fact that Fran is a woman doesn't really come into it. She is shown as strong and successful, and if there is a problem amongst her colleagues, it is that she is respected over and above many of her male colleagues - she certainly doesn't struggle to make her mark because of her sex. As most books with a female lead detective almost invariably deal with the sexist element, it is refreshing that this one doesn't - although quite how realistic that is is hard to judge.
Although it is initially deeply dull, Fran's parenting problems do become more interesting as the book goes on. Both of her parents treat her appallingly, despite their age. They see her as useless, ugly and good for nothing but to look after them - and even then, she doesn't do it to their satisfaction. They clearly need to be cared for, but not by Fran. Unfortunately, Fran can't see this and is prepared to give everything up for them, even though those around her know it will be deeply detrimental for her. As this is an issue that affects many people, it is something that is ultimately very interesting and, along with the crime threads, does make the second half of the book very entertaining. Had Cutler managed to spread this throughout the book rather than cramming it into the last part, the book would have been much better for it.
Cutler's way of writing can't really be faulted. The language is, like most crime fiction, straightforward and to the point, which is exactly what is required for this type of book. The chapters are of a good length - not too long to be boring, or too short to be pointless. The dialogue is perhaps not as good as it should be. There is the issue of losing track of who is saying what, because the dialogue goes for so long. However, there are also times when the dialogue starts to sound a little wooden. There is always an important place for dialogue in crime fiction, but it is slighly overdone here.
Provided that readers can manage to get through the first half of the book, this is a good story that is worth sticking around for. Unfortunately, I think that many people will have put it down long before then, wondering if the crime element of the story is ever going to get going. Having finished the book, I am impressed enough to want to try the next book in the series, but I will only give her one more try - there are much better authors out there, who are able to maintain a reader's interest from page one. If you like gentle crime fiction without too much blood and gore, with a great deal of characterisation, then this may be for you. Three stars out of five, recommended with reservations.
The book is available from Amazon for £6.99. Published by Allison & Busby, it has 396 pages. ISBN-10: 0749081252