How do you find a missing child when his mother doesn’t believe you have the right to even exist? When Detective Inspector Roger Bailley returns to work as Robyn, all she wants is to get on with the job she loves while finally being herself. When toddler Ben Chivers is snatched from a shopping centre on her first day back at work, Robyn has to find Ben- and herself- as she deals with the reactions of her police colleagues, the media and her own daughter…
Trawling the inventory of my crime reading over the years, my interest was piqued by this debut British thriller which has a unique selling point of addressing the issue of gender dysphoria. With the central police character D.I. Roger Bailley returning to work having assumed a new identity as female Detective Inspector Robyn Bailley, Alex Clare invites us into a world hitherto largely unexplored in crime fiction with the emphasis on a police officer undergoing gender reassignment…
Although not without some minor flaws, I largely enjoyed this debut thriller, particularly its focus as a police procedural. There are three central cases revolving around a child’s abduction, the discovery of a body at a building project, and a series of home invasions with elderly individuals as the target. To my mind, the first two of these cases being inextricably linked were very well-realised , and Clare’s obvious research into the balance of straightforward, and at times, mundane details of how police officers garner information and follow leads was well plotted and completely realistic. I actually felt that the third case involving burglaries was a little superfluous to the plot overall, as the predominance of the other two cases, in terms of how they were played out, and the attendant frustrations to the police team’s investigation more than held my interest throughout. I was intrigued by the child abduction case from the outset, mainly due to the characterisation of Ben’s mother, Melissa Chivers, a formidable lawyer, who was singularly one of the most deeply unpleasant individuals that one could encounter. Her spiky interactions with the police, and Bailley in particular, added a real stressful tension to the plot. I would have liked a deeper exploration of her connections to the Church of Immaculate Purity, who sounded like a very sinister bunch of bigots consumed with the belief that everyone is damned to hell, especially if you do not fit their criteria of ‘normalcy’- hence the inevitable tension and bile that Melissa heaps on Bailley. However, this slight lapse aside, I liked the quite clean, linear style of the police cases throughout, with the investigations unfolding with no clumsy coincidences or leap in the dark plot twists. There were moments of genuine tension, neatly inserted into the more linear nature of the police investigation, which added a satisfying ebb and flow to the plot as a whole.
In terms of characterisation, Clare has created a band of police officers who were both extremely believable and overall quite likeable. There are some nice instances of the camaraderie that exists between a team working together day-to-day, and the shared frustrations or triumphs that accompany the twists and turns of a police investigation. The dialogue is fluid and realistic throughout, and the conversations and interactions between her police protagonists has an easy flow to it. Obviously, by addressing the issue of Bailley’s new identity, Clare largely captures the differing reactions that Bailley experiences from her colleagues, the press, her daughter Becky and the perpetrators and victims of crime. On the whole, Clare depicts Bailley and her experiences very well, but I couldn’t help feeling that a little too much of it was surface detail, with many references to Bailley’s focus on her physical appearance in terms of clothes and make-up etc and navigating the skill of being comfortable with a handbag. I would have liked a deeper exploration of Bailley’s psychology as to her decision and motivation to change gender, and her underlying feelings as to why this was so central to her growth and acceptance as a person. There was a possible ‘in’ for this, with the introduction of her daughter into the plot, but this storyline was a little at arm’s length, being largely conducted by phone or text. I would like to have known more about Becky generally, and the fraught relationship with her father, and more to have been made of them finding their way back to each other. Hopefully, this further examination of Bailley gender dysphoria will come to fruition as the series progresses, as this is such a largely unexplored and emotive subject, with a wealth of possibilities, and Bailley’s change as a person growing into, and becoming more comfortable with, her new identity will be interesting to witness.
I think this first introduction to D.I. Robyn Bailley and her team has enormous potential in terms of a series, and with Clare’s obvious skill for plot building, attention to police procedure, and, on the whole, well-realised characterisation there is much to build on in the future. Recommended.
(With thanks to Impress Books for the ARC)
Now that is original, and especially in a crime novel. Detectives are most often real tough manly guys. It’d be interesting to see how it works in this novel.
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