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When DCI Grant Foster finds a series of numbers and letters carved onto a victim's skin, he is perplexed to say the least. Then his sidekick, DS Heather Jenkins recognises the series as potentially the index number for a birth or death certificate and calls in a genealogist, Nigel Barnes to help them follow it up. Sure enough the number leads them back to 1879 and a series of murders. Back in the present day, more murders are happening along the same lines. But what is the present day murderer trying to tell them? Do they have enough information at their fingertips to stop him before more people end up dead?
Having watched and enjoyed the TV series Who Do You Think You Are?, which delves into famous people's family histories, I have become interested in tracing my own family history. When I heard about this book, which uses genealogy to solve a modern day crime, I knew straightaway that I had to read it - author Dan Waddell penned the book that accompanied the TV series. And I was not disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the processes that Nigel Barnes underwent in order to help his police colleagues; so much so that it has given me the extra spur I needed to get on with my own research.
As can perhaps be expected from someone with an interest in genealogy, Waddell has done a good job in developing the main characters. I particularly liked Nigel Barnes, who is described as being a bit of a geek, more interested in the past than the present, but who is nevertheless kind and very likeable. He is a genealogist by trade and spends vast amounts of time on his own, yet a failed romance is hinted at, as well as a potential relationship with DS Jenkins. Perhaps because he is a detective of a slightly different sort, I found Nigel very refreshing as a character and I am pleased to see that he is appearing in another book due to be published by Dan Waddell in 2009.
DCI Foster is slightly less interesting as a character - as policemen in literature are so often portrayed, he is a loner with a predeliction for alcohol - nothing particularly new there. However, we find out during the course of the novel that he was investigated for the assisted suicide of his father, which adds new layers to his character and definitely made him more appealing to me. DS Jenkins' character was not so well-developed, which is a shame because I could feel myself warming to her - she acted as the buffer between the impatient Foster and the slow but meticulous Barnes. However, enough information was given to whet my appetite for the next book in which she also appears.
This is Dan Waddell's first novel, although as a journalist, he is obviously an old hand at writing. His style has carried well over to fiction-writing; it is very clear and to the point without being overly simplistic. He also knows how to write a good piece of crime fiction - there are lots of cliff-hangers that persuaded me to read just one more chapter before I turned out the light, as well as the odd paragraph that takes the reader back to the 1879 murders. For a first novel, I think this is an excellent piece of story-telling and I hope that Waddell manages to keep up the good work in his next one.
If I have to criticise the book, it is that the storyline, linked in as it is with the past, is a bit too contrived and there were times when I found it unconvincing. And the ending was incredibly over-dramatic, with the reader having to process rather too much information in too short a time. However, none of this detracts from the fact that it is an excellent read, contrived or not, so I was more than willing to forgive any vagaries in the plot. And it is next to impossible to guess who the killer is because we simply don't have the necessary material to hand.
Just as a word of warning, some of the murders in the book are particularly graphic, with descriptions of bodies being found scalped, eyes cut out and breasts sliced open. If you prefer cosy tales of bloodless killings, then this book is not for you.
It is quite a while since I have found a work of crime fiction quite so appealing and although the concept of the present mirroring the past may not be original, the way it was dealt with here is really well done and made for fascinating reading. I am really looking forward to the next book in the series, but in the meantime, I highly recommend this offering to anyone who enjoys crime fiction and/or genealogy.
The book is available from play.com for £5.49. Published by Penguin Books, it has 416 pages. ISBN: 9780141025650
This review was previously published by me on thebookbag.co.uk.
As dawn breaks over London, the body of a young man is discovered in a windswept Notting Hill churchyard. The killer has left Detective Chief Inspector Grant Foster and his team a grisly, cryptic clue...However, it's not until the clue is handed to Nigel Barnes, a specialist in compiling family trees, that the full message becomes spine-chillingly clear. For, it leads Barnes back more than one hundred years - to the victim of a demented Victorian serial killer...When a second body is discovered Foster needs Barnes's skills more than ever. Because the murderer's clues appear to run along the tangled bloodlines that lie between 1879 and now. And if Barnes is right about his blood-history, the killing spree has only just begun...From the author of the bestselling "Who Do You Think You Are?" comes a haunting crime novel of blood-stained family histories and gruesome secrets.