Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
As much as the doubtful gift of total recall helps and hinders P.I. Brenna Spector, so it offers clues and confuses Gaylin’s readers. As if to reassure those already acquainted with her series character this novel starts simply yet with a strong odour of menace.
“RJ”, a middle-aged editor of pornographic videos and aspiring film director is on the verge of his long anticipated Breakthrough Project. An ardent votary of Spielberg (even dressing like his idol), carrying his new $3000 camera, RJ arrives at a somewhat unexpected studio for the first meeting with Lula Belle, his putative leading lady. For her, too, this is her big chance since currently she is a performance artist: an unidentified silhouette on screen who drives punters mad with stuff more subtle than straight porn. So the scene is set for a Hollywood film agent to approach Brenna Spector when his client, Lula Belle, disappears.
It’s Brenna’s assistant, Trent, he of the fake tan and tattoos, who provides the on-line background on the lady, her videos producing two surprises, first that such a lubricious performer should be involved with a children’s agent, and even more shocking, that as Lula Belle “performs” she recounts memories from Brenna’s childhood as if they were her own, their most appalling feature involving Clea, her sister who disappeared decades ago. Now Brenna feels compelled to find this stranger who must surely know what became of Clea, even her whereabouts if she is still alive.
Most of the characters here are stock, even to the seductive widow and Persephone, her wandering cat. We encountered them in And She Was, the first novel in the series. Same people, different plot. This one is about connections, and complicated. How does Lula Belle connect with Clea? Who is the ravishing bimbo whom Brenna catches almost in flagrante with Trent, and whom she recalls seeing some weeks ago, distraught and weeping at Niagara Falls?
As she investigates, aided and occasionally frustrated by police and the well-intentioned Trent, mobiles and texts come to light, computers and emails. “RJ” is identified but not found for he too has disappeared and, in searching for him, Brenna and Trent run foul of an ageing villain and his hired hitmen while, as they come closer to unmasking Lula Belle, even to finding her and solving the riddle of Brenna’s long absent sister, everything starts to gel – and the arch villain strikes.
The characters come over well. There are jokes on virtually every page. Between them and the italicized passages that are Brenna’s total recall there are glimpses of domestic life: the abrasive mother-daughter relationship of herself and Maya, and the amusing affair: half-love, half-lust, between protagonist and the nice cop Morasco.
The denouement sorts out the complexities but one can’t help feeling that so much recall used as timely clues is something of a cheat. Broadly speaking the means are hardly justified by the end.