Jim Kelly lives in Ely, Cambridgeshire, with his partner, the writer Midge Gillies, and their daughter. He is the author of the series starring journalist Philip Dryden. The Dryden series won the 2006 CWA Dagger in the Library award for a bodyof work giving ‘the greatest enjoyment to readers’
Luke Delaney’s Cold Killing is a debut from a former Met Police CID officer. Presumably it is not his real name. His career apparently included – and I quote from the blurb – investigating murders from ‘gangland assassinations’ to those committed by ‘fledgling serial killers.”
Two points here. If someone kills someone else because they are a member of a rival gang it is a murder, not an assassination. We really do have to stop treating London gangs with a kind of reverence for diamond geezers. This isn’t an episode of Call The Midwife. And what, exactly, is a “fledgling serial killer”? (Only a guess – is it someone who commits a murder? Or, who thinks they might?) I’m a fledgling serial killer. I’d like to kill the person who wrote the blurb.
Anyway, putting all that aside, I enjoyed Cold Killing. A serial killer is lose in London. We are into high-concept murder here, so we’re dealing with a killer on an almost supernatural plane. Certainly someone who would think of themselves as a super man. Someone who is, literally, dressed to kill. We soon get stuck into a series of killings, with different modus operandi, different types of victim, different sexes, different weapons. DI Sean Corrigan of the South London Murder Investigation Unit and his team are on the trail. It’s a good team by the way – including DS Donnelly, a no-nonsense Scot. No-nonsense is shorthand for corrupt of course, and it is – incidentally – a shame our hero becomes implicit in the use of false evidence. And there’s DS Sally Jones, a good, feisty, intelligent woman.
So what’s Delaney’s Unique Selling Point? Or in this case, what’s Corrigan’s USP? In the crowded world of crime fiction why should we read this book? It turns out DI Corrigan was abused in childhood by his father – I think we can assume this is both sexual, and violent abuse. Children who are thus victims can go on to become perpetrators in their own right. And this gives Corrigan a terrific added edge, a double-edge in fact – not only can he think himself into the minds of killers, he is haunted by the possibility that he will become one himself. All this gives Cold Killing a very distinctive feel. It sets it apart, which is a success for any debut. Corrigan spots that the seemingly unrelated murders are the work of a serial killer.
The serial killer plot is nicely weighted down by Delaney’s excellent use of police procedure. And not the usual pettifogging detail. Delaney has a gift for using the everyday facts of life of being a copper to bring alive what would otherwise be dull CID footwork – tracking down IDs, matching DNA samples, analysing blood spatter patterns. All these have been done to death, so to speak, but here they are used to show just how difficult it is to catch a serial killer – and get him to court. And the ‘office’ side of the action is well established. There is plenty of inter-divisonal rivalry, inherent police corruption, career-building, and that kind of sickly esprit de corps which seems to infect all pre-dominantly male organisations.
The book is periodically interrupted by some tricksy ‘in the mind of the killer’ kind of flashbacks, although flash inwards would be more accurate here. As a device this can effective, in that it appears to overcome the basic inherent flaw in the whole crime genre – that it is very difficult to allow the reader to get close to the killer without revealing their identity. There are also periodic visits to crime scenes. Our killer is an inventive sadist (at least I think that’s his motivation), and we are not spared the details. We crawl over the bodies of the dead, and dying, like maggots. This is fine, and indeed is done very well, with a good, forensic, detached, observer in Corrigan. Problems arise when we visit the same crime scenes in the mind of the killer, and experience his pleasures at first hand. This is pretty close to being the pornography of violence.
Delaney could get away with this if he was a bit more rigorous in developing his USP – Corrigan’s ‘sixth sense’ for being able to get in the killer’s mind. We skirt round Corrigan’s childhood. If his own special powers as a detective rely on this experience it would be instructive to know what happened – the vague nature of ‘abuse’ tends towards caricature. If we knew what he had suffered we’d know a little bit more about what he can see in others. We need to know why the killer is doing what he does. Corrigan is supposed to have an insight into this but too often this boils down to a vague feeling or premonition. Corrigan seems to be able to see what the killer will do, not his motivation. Or, if he can feel why the killer kills, he isn’t telling us. Robbed of the only insight that matters – into motive – the murders play out to the reader without a commentary, and excite little but a desire to put the book down. If Corrigan can sense a killer – a serial killer – then what exactly is he spotting? Tell us what he can see. It’s not good enough to say he just gets a kind of premonition.
The book’s finale lives up to Delaney’s ambitions to create something of the Grand Guignol – a kind of horror-filled opera, soaked in blood and melodrama. If you think you know what’s going on a hundred pages short of the end you will be very surprised by the denouement. Delaney cleverly constructs a high concept plot and then reveals – as it were – an outer shell, which is even more high concept than the original. This is a trick, which reminded me of the work of Thomas Harris. I put the book down with that satisfying feeling of how the hell did he make that work? I then had to fight the urge to re-read it, looking for clues, to make sure he had made it work. A follow-up is promised. Let’s hope the next outing explores more of Corrigan’s mind, and his skills, and less of the various fetishtic habits of serial killers – fledgling or otherwise.