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.
The setting is inner-city Vancouver, slightly different but not unfamiliar: a place where lost and homeless people, those of mixed race, abused and alcoholic, gravitate.
Nora Watts is one such although, surprisingly, she has found employment, even some form of shelter. Aged around forty, she is plain and fiercely anti-social. Her relevant asset is that she can sense when a person is telling lies, a talent that has secured her a job with a gay detective, Seb Crow. Seb shares premises with his partner, Leo, an investigative journalist. Unknown to either, Nora is squatting in their basement with a large dog-waif called Whisper.
There is some horrific event in Nora’s past that changed her life and of which we get more than a hint when a distraught couple invade the office to demand that Seb find their missing daughter. They adopted the girl as a baby but her current photograph reveals a teenager of mixed race with her mother’s eyes. The bomb has dropped. The couple have come to Seb (and Nora) because they are convinced that their girl’s biological mother will move mountains to find their child. Nora’s past has caught up with her. So there is more than a clue as to what happened fifteen years ago but how does that relate to the girl’s disappearance now, if it does? Did she go voluntarily? Is she alive? If so, the usual question arises: what, or who, is keeping her from returning? The straight answer may be more or less predictable; motivation is the unknown factor and in the event highly topical and ingenious. Nice research.
The subsequent search for the girl, the exposure of a plot, the investigation that turns to a hunt, finally the hunter hunted – throughout the action is permeated with Nora’s ambivalent attitude towards her child. She is lacerated by guilt but unnerved by hatred for the father, and this colours everything she does and thinks. It also colours the book; one can have too much of a heinous thing.
For the rest, it’s basically old themes and atmosphere but all elements nicely tweaked. Nora’s friends can be counted on one hand but no one is ordinary. Apart from her kindly landlords and the dog there is Brazuca, an alcoholic ex-cop with whom, and only incidentally, there’s a savage coupling in the Rockies. This serves no other purpose than to justify the hype of the novel’s having some similarity to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But there is Simone, a drag queen at night, software specialist by day, a fun character; we could have had more of her.
The background is well done. This being British Columbia and the protagonist of mixed race, exploitation of native people is a feature, with an appropriate climax on Vancouver Island where land and timber and wildlife have been enriching freebooters for centuries. So fitting and somewhat apt to end with a Wagnerian riot of song and guns, moonlight and water and even a humpback whale. Good enough.