Hugh Gwynne is a respected lawyer and happily married family man. He has been working with a client on a case of post-traumatic stress syndrome as the result of an accident and is relieved to think that, after months of work, it will soon be over. That is, until he receives an anonymous letter that suggests his client is not as innocent as he once thought. Just as he is coming to terms with this, Hugh is forced to deal with the death of his wife in a fire. Moreover, he doesn't think that the death was due to an accident as the police would have him believe. Can he find out the truth despite the evidence pointing to an accident? And will he be able to save his client from himself?
This is the first Clare Francis book that I have read, and so was unsure what to expect. I was glad to note that the book is a stand-alone story, rather than one that had recurring characters - it can sometimes be difficult to start a series half-way through. Despite this, I did find it quite difficult to warm to the main character, Hugh. Although the story is told from Hugh's point of view and we are told quite a lot about Hugh's working life and family relationships, I still didn't feel that I knew him very well by the end of the book. Whereas this didn't particularly impact on the story and may indeed have been a deliberate ploy on the part of the author, it did affect my enjoyment of it - I always find that if I can't identify with the main characters in some shape or form that I can't fully enjoy the story.
The story is quite unusual in that it didn't really get going until a third of the way through the book. The first third is spent concentrating on the case on which Hugh is working and his client, Tom, who is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. I am generally interested in all forms of mental illness, having personal experience of it, so I did find it interesting. However, it starts the story out in one direction, which then more or less peters out as Hugh's family tragedy takes over. Although it is followed up to a certain extent later, I couldn't help but wonder why the author decided to go ahead with this sub-plot in the first place, unless it is designed to compare Hugh's suffering as a victim with that of his client's. I honestly think she could have taken it out completely and it wouldn't have made much difference.
The main part of the plot, which involves the investigation surrounding the death/murder of Hugh's family, is compelling. It is obvious from the start that nothing is quite as it seems, but there are a number of directions that the investigation could have gone in, and it was fun trying to guess what was going to happen next. And I have to admit that the solution, when it comes, was not one that I had thought of. It is not the most original of plots, but I thought it was convincing and it kept me up at night to finish it. I would have liked a bit more of a twist at the end, but I think that I am perhaps being overly greedy.
There were times when I found the way that the story is told a little pedantic. For example, whereas some authors would have expressed a certain situation by describing it in a couple of sentences, Clare Francis frequently uses conversation to do so. This does occasionally drag out a point that could have been dealt with much more concisely and makes the writing seem a little clumsy. Apart from that though, I really liked the style of writing; it is fresh without being too abrupt and easy to read without being too simplistic. Perfect for this type of book.
I liked the way that the author has included so many contemporary social problems within the storyline. There is drug abuse (and the mental health issues that go hand in hand with it), agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress syndrome, alcholism, gangs, racism and bullying. All of this gives a very modern feel to the book. On top of that, they are dealt with in a very non-judgemental way. Hugh's own son, for example, is a recovering drug addict, and his family are prepared to do what they can to help him even though it is clear that they would really rather avoid the issue. I was attracted by this realism. It isn't exactly original, but does help to take crime fiction a step forward from the more traditional, middle-class crime fiction that has already been done to death.
This book isn't without its flaws and it doesn't have the most memorable of storylines; nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it and look forward to reading more work by Clare Francis in the near future. Recommended to anyone who enjoys crime fiction, particularly that with a contemporary feel.
The hardback version is available from play.com for £12.99 - the paperback hasn't been released yet. Published by Pan Macmillan, it has 400 pages. ISBN: 9780333903506
This review was originally published by me on thebookbag.co.uk