Reviewed by Gill Davies
Behind Closed Doors is the second novel in Elizabeth Haynes’s new series featuring the Major Crime team in Briarstone. The first was Under A Silent Moon, published in 2013. This gripping and engaged novel deals with the complex nature of contemporary criminal activity and its detection. At its centre is human trafficking, especially of girls and women into prostitution, and more precisely the kidnapping of a 15-year-old English girl, Scarlett Rainsford, while on holiday with her family in Greece. The novel opens ten years later when Scarlett, previously assumed dead, re-appears in her home town after a brothel is raided by police. Mystery surrounds what has happened to her in the intervening years but also why she won’t talk about it and why she is reluctant to get in contact with her parents and younger sister. DCI Louisa Smith was slightly involved in the case when she was a junior officer and she notes with frustration the failures of both English and Greek police at the time. Her drive to find out what happened and to help Scarlett return to a better life is underpinned by her regret at the failure of the earlier investigation. She is assisted by her friend and colleague Samantha Hollands and her boyfriend / partner, Jason, a senior intelligence analyst who can short-cut her access to records and other relevant investigations. The personal lives of these three characters are explored to some extent and have an impact on the ongoing investigation. To complicate things (and keep the reader mystified and hooked) there are two other investigations underway that may or may not be related to Scarlett’s disappearance. They feature the murder of a known criminal and a violent assault on one of his associates, both of them involved in drug-dealing and prostitution in Briarstone.
According to the author’s website, she did a lot of research into trafficking, taking her inspiration from a memoir, Slave Girl by Sarah Forsyth. ‘Sarah’s story was the starting point for me, thinking about what might have happened to Scarlett over the years and what might have prevented her from coming home.’ Clearly, Haynes is not going to write a gratuitously explicit novel about sexual violence and the brutalisation of women’s lives. Nonetheless, she emphasises the fact that the word ‘trafficking’ and its coverage in the media can distance us from events that are truly shocking. She goes on to say that
we are able to file trafficking in the mental space that’s reserved for ‘things that happen to other people’ and even, possibly, ‘misfortunes that people have brought upon themselves.’ The traffickers and their victims, after all, are ‘foreign’, aren’t they? … These women are trying to get into the UK, to steal our jobs and our benefits. Regrettably, it isn’t that simple…. People become a commodity for all manner of reasons, and the linking factor is that choice doesn’t come into it. These are human beings, bought and sold, in modern, civilised, progressive European cities…. I wanted to write about trafficking from the point of view of a white, middle class British girl to try and challenge our perceptions of trafficking and how, actually, it affects all of us.
I found this aspect of the novel harrowing. The ways in which Scarlett becomes trapped, terrified, exploited and tricked are horrible and entirely convincing. Haynes does contribute significantly, through the use of a popular fictional form, to our understanding of human trafficking.
In general, the novel is a gripping and well-plotted police procedural. It has been informed by the writer’s inside knowledge and contacts (she worked as a police intelligence analyst). She uses reportage techniques like reproducing documents in the text such as witness statements, crime reports, and interview records. These add a certain verisimilitude, though I don’t think they make the novel any more plausible – to me they are often rather unnecessary. All the elements of the classic police procedural are here: two or three separate crimes start to overlap as the plot develops; there is a focus on the main police characters and – to some extent – their back stories; they are treated sympathetically (with just a few individual flaws – usually drinking too much and struggling to keep their relationships going because of their obsession with ongoing cases); the police are the moral centre of the novel with only an occasional bad apple; criticism is confined to the police hierarchy, its rivalries and bureaucracy; and the world of the ‘civilians’ is seen as broken, corrupt, villainous – but with sympathetic victim(s). You may have guessed that this isn’t entirely my taste or point of view, but Haynes certainly works the formula very well. Her plotting is tight and surprising, the characters well drawn. But what made the novel most interesting for me was that she also presents – at length – Scarlett’s point of view and recounts her past experiences. She thus ceases to be the typical detective fiction ‘victim’ and comes across as a damaged but tough survivor and still humane. For me, the novel also worked better than a lot of police procedurals because of the centrality of the women characters whose interior as well as external voices are heard throughout. I look forward to reading more by Elizabeth Haynes.
Elizabeth Haynes, Behind Closed Doors (Sphere, 2015). 13579108642, 467pp., paperback.
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