A young man enters the culverted remains of an ancient Glasgow stream, looking for thrills. Deep below the city, it is decaying and claustrophobic and gets more so with every step. As the ceiling lowers to no more than a couple of feet above the ground, the man finds his path blocked by another person. Someone with his throat cut. As DS Rachel Narey leads the official investigation, photographer Tony Winter follows a lead of his own, through the shadowy world of urbexers, people who pursue a dangerous and illegal hobby, a world that Winter knows more about than he lets on. And it soon becomes clear that the murderer has killed before, and has no qualms about doing so again.
Let’s begin the new year as we mean to go on, and start off with a confirmed favourite of the Raven. Despite a brief hiatus in this series, Robertson now takes us back to his exceptional police procedural series, featuring police photographer Tony Winter, and DI Rachel Narey. It is a testament to the strength of the series to date, that I was very quickly inveigled back into the sphere of their professional and personal lives, and In Place of Death, has gained the honour of being my favourite book in the series so far…
With a positively claustrophobic and spine chilling opening, with the discovery of a body in the most inhospitable of locations, Robertson takes us on a weird and wonderful journey into the world of urbexing- the exploration and charting of abandoned, and by extension, dangerous run down buildings, not only in their physicality but by the ne-er-do-wells who can lurk within them! To get another sense of the locations that Robertson draws on throughout the book, I would recommend an investigation of two brilliant photography books, Beauty In Decay and Abandoned Places which give you a further real sense of the beautifully sinister air of neglected buildings and structures and the shadowy essence of life gone by they hold within them. Robertson depicts each location absolutely perfectly as the investigation proceeds, and brings a visual photographic quality alongside the feel and sensory perceptions that each location generates in the reader. As a reflection of the strong sense of location used in the book, the tone of the book is dark and haunting, giving Robertson the opportunity to explore the twisted psyche of a killer to great effect. It’s always gratifying to read a crime novel that goes beyond superficial themes and under-developed sense of place, and with the atmosphere and portrayal of the urbexer’s experiences and brushes with danger, Robertson has achieved this in spades.
Another feather in Robertson’s cap is the strength of his characterisation, not only in his depiction of Tony Winter, a scene of crime photographer who possesses a unique eye, and at times a slightly disturbing type of empathy with the victims that he photographs, and DI Rachel Narey, a headstrong and dedicated police officer whose sense of justice sometimes puts her at odds with her immediate superior officers. Both characters are entirely credible and the reader forms a genuine attachment to them, both in the trials of their working lives, with Winter’s job in the balance, and the potential stumbling blocks of their personal involvement. Equally, Robertson infuses a sense of pathos, through Winter’s unique sensitivity to the victims he photographs, and in this book, with the character of Remy Feeks, who discovers the first victim, leading him on a dangerous path and putting him in the sight of a killer. Usually, there is a cut out and paste depiction of some poor soul (usually walking their dog) stumbling on a corpse, so I liked the way that Robertson made Feeks so integral to the narrative as a whole, and the sympathy his character elicits in us as we become more familiar with his personal life.
Once again, Robertson has produced an entirely satisfying crime read, undercut with darkness, and suffused with a unique sense of place and atmosphere, with a stalwart and credible cast of characters. Still one of my favourites, and eagerly awaiting the next.
(With thanks to Simon & Schuster for the ARC)