Well James Henry has worked hard to shake off the shadow of Inspector Jack Frost who he brilliantly recreated in the three prequels he wrote following the demise of their creator R.D. Wingfield. In Blackwater there isn’t a whiff of Jack, although as these books are set in the 80s, the policing isn’t quite what we expect in these more enlightened times. This has the added advantage that the police are far more interested in actual action than meeting targets and getting overly involved in the politics of policing, although the whiff of them is just blowing faintly on the breeze!
Our chief protagonist in the force in Blackwater is Detective Inspector Nicholas Lowry, a sympathetic character who is struggling with his approaching fortieth birthday albeit with fortitude. His decision to stop smoking whilst those around him continue with abandon and to give up his position on the Boxing team is giving his boss serious cause for concern. Nick Lowry is married to a nurse, Jacqui, and although he may not fully understand why, his marriage isn’t as healthy as his New Year’s resolution. Conveniently our book covers the time the clock strikes midnight on 31 December 1982 and before too long a headless corpse is discovered on the salt marshes of Blackwater.
Meanwhile we get to hear from some smugglers with a shipment who have lost their way but are determined to start 1983 with the money they were promised but luck isn’t on their side. The discovery of the corpse has delayed them further and without the name of the buyer, it looks like they may have a long wait. Without mobile phones to handily use to pass on messages through the food-chain to explain themselves, life quickly becomes very complicated.
James Henry brilliantly gives us a sense of time period and place. The complexities of Colchester’s CID co-operation with the smaller, and often cut-off West Mersea police force are engagingly recreated for our pleasure. With the larger force at least making a nod towards more progressive policing, West Mersea are very much stuck in another time, where knowing someone is a ne’er-do-well, is reason enough to arrest and charge them for the next available crime. The author gives us some of the much loved products and historical facts to reinforce the time, without going over the top and trading on reader’s nostalgia. The setting helps here too, Colchester is a garrison town and the army features strongly as tensions rise between them and the locals, any patriotic goodwill from winning the Falklands War certainly doesn’t trump the soldiers spending their Christmas leave on using their wages to woo the local ladies.
The plot is complicated and with quite a few characters, including a very promising young female officer, to keep track of this isn’t a book to read if you don’t have plenty of concentration. Fortunately each change of view or place is helpfully signposted by giving the date, time and place, take note dear reader, especially at the beginning or I fear you may get in a terrible muddle! The switches frequent the viewpoint ever changing and with both actual and moral crimes being committed you do want to know what is what. With a steadier hand than our original two smugglers though, James Henry brings this to a fitting conclusion in the very model of a proper police procedural, with the loose ends tied up but leaving one thread to enable him to give us another episode, hopefully in the not too distant future.
I was given a proof copy by the author well ahead of the publication date of 14 July 2016 and I’m afraid I couldn’t wait until nearer this date to sample the goods!!