Reviewed by Linda Boa
Dust And Desire is the first in a trilogy (the other two are out next year) featuring London-based Private Investigator Joel Sorrell. Joel is an ex-policeman whose life went to pieces when his wife, Rebecca, was horribly murdered, and he left the force before he was asked to leave (be warned – this book has some pretty gruesome scenes, and plenty of bad language, so it’s definitely not for you if you don’t like either in your reading.) If that wasn’t bad enough, three months later his daughter Sarah, who is only 13, disappears.
Three years on and Joel has found no trace of her, but runs his own PI business, part of which consists of helping others by tracking down their missing loved ones – as well as other business. The fact that he advertises by putting cards in telephone boxes, pub toilets, bus seats, specifically targeting the desperate who can’t go to the police, then picks up his responses from a PO box, suggests a lot of his business isn’t entirely orthodox, but the case he picks up at the beginning of this novel appears relatively straightforward.
He’s approached by Barry Liptrott, a bit of a scumbag who moves on the fringes of Joel’s world, asking him to help out a girl called Kara Geenan, who’s looking for someone to track down her brother. She’s convinced he is in trouble, despite the fact she dropped him at home the previous night. Sorrell could do with the work, and the money, so takes on what seems an easy job. But, as you can imagine, it turns into anything but…
The boy he’s looking for is called Jason Phythian, and is only 18. Furnished with his address and the places where he allegedly hangs out, Sorrell heads home, almost immediately regretting taking on the job. But the next day he heads out looking for Jason. But, as we soon discover, Jason’s no normal 18-year-old, off drinking with mates or holed up with a girl he’s met. His hangouts seem to consist mostly of strip clubs, and a restaurant that, when Sorrell goes to see if Jason’s there, is having a Swinger’s Night. This restaurant, despite apparently being one of the hot places to currently eat in London, is run by a gangster called Danny Sweet, who runs bare-knuckle boxing bouts in the cellar. When Sorrell heads down there, asking for Jason, he’s told that new customers must fight first night. So he does exactly what any man in such a situation would do – he kicks his opponent in the privates and does a runner!
After a few drinks with his photographer mate Nev, the next place he tries is what Kara claims is Jason’s home address. When he knocks on the door, a light goes out, and, with the house door lying open, he enters, saying he’s there at Kara’s request, and that she’s worried. The next thing he knows, he’s being attacked from behind, with an arm round his throat and someone ‘hammering open his skull.’ If not for Nev quickly following him from the pub to see if he wanted to accompany him on a photographic job, he’d be dead. It seems the hunter has become the hunted – Joel’s been set up. He needs to find Kara, and Liptrott, and see who it is that harbours such a horrendous grudge that he wants Joel dead, as Joel is convinced that was his attacker’s intent. So he disappears from hospital, determined to discover why he’s become the target of a psychopath.
Unsurprisingly, Kara Geenan has gone AWOL. Tracking down her workplace through one of Liptrott’s chums, he finds she’s cleared out of there sharpish, emptying the till on her way. However, the landlord, from looking at her mobile phone’s numbers and a rail ticket, is convinced she has connections in Liverpool . Liverpool lies in Sorrell’s past, and it’s a time he’d definitely rather forget. Liptrott proves a bit easier to track down – he’s at home. DI Ian Mawker – the same policeman who’d visited him in hospital after the attack at ‘Jason’s’ house – phones and asks him to visit a flat, which turns out to be Liptrott’s. He’ll be no help to Joel though – someone’s got there first and murdered him, in a truly hideous manner. Mawker has some questions for Joel, as he’d heard he’d been on the lookout for Liptrott, so Joel has no choice but to pour the whole sorry story out to Mawker – who, coincidentally he’d been at police college with.
Sorrell is convinced the answer lies in the distant past, in Liverpool, so heads up there. The body count continues to rise, and some of them are older murders, but their sheer brutality suggests the same hand was responsible for all of them – ‘Jason Phythian’, or whatever his real name is. Once he’s found out all he can in Liverpool, he heads back down to London, for the final reckoning with his nemesis. Like all the action scenes in the book, it’s brilliantly written.
This is the kind of book that has to be prised from my hands, as the action really is non-stop. Conrad Williams, who is apparently a fairly successful horror writer (I can believe that!), has created a fantastic character in Joel – he’s smart-mouthed, and often very funny, which helps to lighten the violence. He’s not some superhero; in fact he often takes second prize in the various contretemps his mouth finds him in, which makes him a more sympathetic character. A possible romance ends up going badly wrong in his quest for the truth. You feel he’s trying to fix anything he’s asked to, as he cannot fix the one thing he most wants to – his wife being dead, and his daughter missing. I think every reader will find a soft spot for him. I personally can’t wait for book two, Sonata Of The Dead, which is due out in July 2016. So if you like your crime “gritty and compelling”, as Mark Billingham says on the cover, this one’s definitely for you.
Linda blogs at Crimeworm.
Conrad Williams, Dust And Desire (Titan Books, 2015) 978-1783295630, 320 pp., paperback.