Ali Karim is a Board Member of Bouchercon [The World Crime & Mystery Convention] and co-chaired programming for Bouchercon Raleigh, North Carolina in 2015. He is Assistant Editor of Shots eZine, British correspondent for The Rap Sheet and writes and reviews for many US magazines & Ezines.
This time Peter James sends our police team from Brighton on the dark pursuit of what maybe the appearance of a diabolic serial killer. A warning though: James has decided to delve into the darkest edges of human nature, investigating the line that separates the evil, from the deranged - something his readers are familiar with; but this eleventh instalment is, without question, his darkest yet.
What at first appears as a kidnapping, the disappearance of brunette Logan Somerville from an underground carpark, may well be something far more troubling. Her distraught fiancé took Somerville’s final telephone call, in which she screamed before the line was cut. The narrative then takes a turn toward the psychiatric ward, as Grace, Branson and the team realise that a dark force has arrived in their ‘manor’ – and so the Sussex major crimes unit are called in.
What appears to be a tattoo on the forehead of a body discovered at the bottom of the chalky cliffs of the suicide hot spot known as ‘Beachy Head’ - when examined it is not indicative of someone taking their own life, but something far more disturbing. The autopsy concludes that the tattoo on the cadaver’s forehead was actually done with a ‘branding iron’, and that gives this novel its title.
As Grace consults medical professionals, the word ‘serial killer’ is whispered, and his thoughts drift back toward Sandy Grace, his missing wife that has haunted these novels from the beginning. The added dimension is the wide array of secondary characters who are delineated in vivid terms, and provide some flourishes of humour to lighten the narrative. The level of research into the workings of a hunt for a psychopath is remarkable, but like all James’ tales, the detail is striated across the narrative rather than forced upon the reader, making the novel breath with the authenticity of a true-crime documentary.
With clipped chapters, terse narrative all adds to the growing anxiety as the climax is reached, which like life [itself], poses questions for the reader to interpret, as well as for Roy himself. One ponders why do we read such dark tales, and what is their attraction and popularity? I would postulate that we do so for we need to have a restoration of order in a world that is as dangerous as it is random, and we rely on characters such as Roy Grace, to shine a light into the darkness. Highly recommended, but bring a torch as this is a very dark tale, in a word unsettling and crisp.