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Priscilla Masters

Allison & Busby £17.99

Reviewed by Maureen Carlyle

This is an excellently crafted police procedural. I have to confess I have not read any of the six previous novels in this series, but shall certainly look out for them on the bookshelves.
The story opens with the christening of DI Joanna Piercy's nephew, an occasion which she dreads - probably because she knows her own partner, Matthew, a pathologist, will say and do all the right things. Her job is her life and the thought of giving it up in order to raise a family is anathema to her. At the christening she is approached by a woman who asks her advice on what to do about a child she considers is at serious risk. She advises her to contact the social services. The following day she is asked to attend a local primary school, where staff and parents are worried about a local loner, Joshua Baldwin, who hangs around the school in his van as the children are leaving. Joanna and her colleague Mike Korpanski interview Baldwin. Joanna decides he is just very lonely (his wife deserted him not long ago, taking their child). Korpanski is not so sure.
A few days later it is Good Friday. The children are breaking up for the Easter holiday (I don't know of any school that actually operates on Good Friday myself, but perhaps it happens in some parts of the country). A little girl from the primary school, Madeline Wiltshaw, goes missing at the end of school, and Baldwin's van has been seen outside as usual.
Joanna and Korpanski interview Baldwin again, but she is still convinced of his innocence. This opinion is coloured by her view of Madeline's home conditions. Madeline's mother is a weak and ineffectual woman who is dominated by her brutal and unpleasant partner, Huke.
Although an urgent police search is instigated, it is the Easter weekend, and nothing is found. The area is a rural one in the throes of the foot and mouth epidemic, and farmers are reluctant to allow searchers on their land. By Easter Monday the trail is growing cold. Joanna finds out more about the unhappy life of Madeline. She is the child the woman at the christening was worried about. It emerges that the only person Madeline really trusted was a children's conjurer.
It would be a pity to give any more of the story away as it is not difficult for the reader to work out. The plot is only too believable and rather depressing as a consequence.
The strength lies in the characterisation and the dilemma which Joanna faces in her personal life. This is not resolved at the end - a device that leaves you impatient for the next book.