What starts with the gruesome discovery of a severed head on the Tube soon becomes personal for former DI Cal Drake. After one betrayal too many, Drake has abandoned the police force to become a private detective. He’s teamed up with enigmatic forensic pathologist Dr Rayhana Crane and it’s not long before the case leads them to the darkest corners of the nation’s capital and in dangerously close contact with an international crime circuit, a brutal local rivalry and a very personal quest for retribution. With the murder victim tied to Drake’s past, his new future is about to come under threat…
I read the first of this scorching new series, The Divinities, some time ago and at the close of the review said how much I was anticipating the next book in the series. Well, Parker Bilal has come up trumps again, and just as the first book made it in to my Top Ten of the Year, The Heights may achieve a similar status…
With the two main characters, ex-detective Cal Drake and forensic pathologist/psychologist Dr Rayhana Crane, having now embarked on a closer working relationship in private investigation, Bilal takes this series in an interesting new direction. Drake is as screwed up personally and emotionally as before, with the events of the first book gaining even greater prominence here. Rest assured, the author constructs the story so the reader is fully aware of the previous events, if you missed the previous book. Drake is an interesting character, living life to his own slightly skewed moral compass, and haunted by his previous career in both the military and as an undercover police officer. He is brusque and understandably mistrustful of people generally, but this odd pairing works extremely well, and the small chinks of decency and morality that he seeks to veil do appear from time to time, as he works more closely with the vibrant and outgoing Crane. Not that Crane doesn’t have her own demons, emanating from her very unusual family background, which features heavily in this book, and her own single minded determination, that makes her both forthright and brave. The dynamics of their working relationship propel the plot along at a good pace, and with the differing strands of their investigations, and personal tumult, Bilal does an excellent job of juggling the various tensions that these tangential cases places upon them.
What struck me most with the first book, and to an even greater extent with this one, is the superb characterisation of London itself and how Bilal depicts the essential energy and feel of this teeming metropolis. Having so perfectly captured the chasm between rich and poor in The Divinities, some of this book sees Drake moving about the homeless community in pursuit of an individual crucial to their enquiries. These scenes are written with a real attention to the plight of this community, highlighting how easy it is to fall between the cracks, and what kind of existence this leads to. Likewise, with the story spiralling back to the nefarious deeds of an international crime network involved in drug and people trafficking, and drawing on the particular backgrounds of Drake and Crane themselves, there is a strong multi-cultural feel to the book too. In the scenes relating to Drake’s previous undercover case with the police, Bilal brings a strong thread of realism to the story of his involvement with a witness, Zelda, and her subsequent death, as she sought a better life in Britain only for it to go so desperately awry. I felt a huge amount of sympathy both for her, and for the complex moral dilemma this put Drake through, torn between his duty as a police officer, but also his indebtedness to and dangerous coercion of her to speak out.
Although The Heights makes for, at times, bleak and uncomfortable reading, I was utterly mesmerised by it throughout. Bilal maintains a real energy and pace to the book, and with the story comprising of a number of different strands, there is certainly no opportunity for the reader’s attention to wander. I liked the way that these strands wove in and out with each other, keeping a real control to the narrative arc, and making some interesting connections along the way, and even more excitingly some unresolved issues that may bode well for a further addition to the series. The characters of Drake and Crane themselves, serve as an effective anchor to the book, and through their differences in personality, but an uncanny knack to actually work rather well together, all in all Bilal has hit on a winning combination I feel. Packed with tension and with an adroit rendition of London itself, highlighting the gap between rich and poor, the exploited and the exploiters, this was an immersive and compelling read. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to Black Thorn Press for the ARC)
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