Dead At First Sight

Written by Peter James

Review written by Gwen Moffat

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.

Dead At First Sight
RRP: £20
Released: May 16 2019

If it hasn’t happened in fiction most of us are aware of it in reality, if not personally. How many of us have been the target of desperate countrymen stranded in a foreign land who can be saved by the loan of a few pounds?

James elaborates that crude scam into a sophisticated scheme with neat variations and here incorporating an on-line dating agency. There is a nebulous network of organisations with operators extorting vast sums of cash from vulnerable people mainly in the USA and UK. The extortioners hail from Germany, Eastern Europe, West Africa – and Brighton, Sussex.

This is a big book and the first hundred pages have to set the scene because a lot of people are involved. There are four elements, and these have character themselves. First, the victims; the book starts with Major Fordwater, a fine upstanding but gullible old soldier, the victim of what he thought was a dating agency, awaits the arrival of his on-line love at Heathrow with an armful of roses and almost hysterical excitement.

The woman doesn’t show, instead the police arrive to inform him that she doesn’t exist and he has been defrauded of over £400,000.

 After his initial shock and denial, the major, army trained but maverick, comes out fighting, to engage in a hunt to trace other victims and kindred spirits. Vigilantes evolve.

 The police are the second element on the side of the shady angels, epitomised by Roy Grace; another beleaguered soul with principles, an old-fashioned cop beset by modern crime and a bumptious boss at work. And now there’s a new murder on his own patch, and one that appears to be linked with another in Munich. The link being witnesses’ descriptions of the same two suspects in each case: obviously African, and the bigger man sporting red shoes.

The Africans are at the forefront of an organisation, legally as clean as any Mafia-type concern with its current head-quarters in the Channel Islands, the godfather (terribly disfigured by an acid attack) currently being stalked by a hitman called Tooth. There are innumerable minions among the police, the vigilantes and criminals; the reader may do well to ignore them and to concentrate on the principals.

Tooth, is a well-rounded character, if fraying at the edges. He is suffering from the effects of venom from scorpions and a sawscale viper, having been incarcerated with them by an enemy so he is a weak and vengeful man and, grown careless through pain, the more dangerous.

There was a point in this long novel that I stopped being bored by the scene setting, by the stupidity of supposedly intelligent people falling for outrageous scams, by repetition. With the advent of Tooth, of the Africans, of their meticulous but flawed plotting – and  then, with the  victims coalescing to devise their own plans, the action got into gear and I was fascinated.

A neat dance ensued, James keeping not one but four plots moving yet cleverly coordinated, the possible permutations being innumerable but the outcome logical and precise.

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