Reviewed by Simon
Full disclosure from the off: I am longstanding blogging friends with the author of this book, and also an admirer of his earlier fiction (sequels to E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series). When he got in touch and asked if I’d like to read a copy of Death in Profile, he assured me that there would be no gore or gratuitous violence, and that it would be very much in the line of the Golden Age detective fiction he and I both enjoy so much. Was he right? And, more importantly, is Death in Profile good?
Well, I read all 365 pages of it in a matter of hours (sitting by the seaside in Cornwall, albeit looking at the sea through a window, as it was pretty cold). Fraser-Sampson is a born storyteller and there are few modern novelists as likely to keep me glued to my seat, addictively and happily turning pages. Is it Golden Age detection in feel? Well… kinda? But you can’t quite imagine any Golden Age novel having ‘crackhead’ in the opening paragraph – though the rest might just about appear:
Boyo was a border collie cross, which was how he had come by his name. The crackhead who had given him to his owner, Ben, as a puppy had been convinced that Boyo was a proper noun much in evidence among Welshmen, rather than an antiquated form of address. Not that Boyo himself was particularly worried one way or another, for two reasons. First, he was on the whole preoccupied with satisfying his pressing need to find something to eat. Second, as a dog he was incapable of abstract conceptual thought.
What Boyo is about to find is a dead body: Kathy Barker, who has been raped and bashed in the head. We are spared any unnecessary detail about this – thank goodness; I have no wish at all to read the unnerving detail that some crime writers are keen on – and the matter is dealt with professionally by the police team who have been working on the case for 18 months. This is, you see, the fifth woman to die in similar circumstances in Hampstead over that period. We have a serial killer on our hands.
Death in Profile is very much a procedural murder mystery – which presumably existed in the Golden Age, though isn’t the type of novel that would first come to mind from that period. There’s no collection of unlikely people stranded together in a country house, or anything like that. Instead, the novel is occupied almost entirely with the policemen working on the case – or not working on it, as we shall see. We see Kathy Barker’s husband a fair amount, but the relatives of the four other victims don’t appear at all – not even, curiously, at the trial of one of the suspects later on.
What we get instead is – as far as I can tell, knowing nothing – what certainly feels like stringent accuracy in the way police of different ranks would interact. I am terrible at remembering hierarchical levels, and immediately forgot all of these, but Fraser-Sampson judges the nuances between them acutely. First off is Tom Allen, a detective who is let go from the case after 18 months of not progressing very far. You can see what his superiors mean; as the case is discussed throughout the novel, the reader does begin to wonder what on earth they’ve done over 18 months, as almost no evidence, interviews, or suggestions seem to have been gathered. Tom is replaced by Simon Collison – one of many characters whose name is a variant on ‘Colin’, though this may or may not have been deliberate. And he doesn’t take it all that well, vowing to continue investigating on his own. He felt a bit like he was introduced at the beginning in order to pop up in other Hampstead Murder books (this is being mooted as the first of a series), but he is engaging enough.
Perhaps the most significant people on the team are DC Priya Desai, DC Karen Willis, and DI Bob Metcalfe, all of whom are sympathetic and hard-working characters (refreshing in an age where every detective seems to be a ‘maverick’ by default). Bob is caught between Tom and Simon (with all these Simons, Colins, and Thomases, I did feel rather like I’d had my family turned into a book), wanting to obey his superior without snubbing his old friend. Priya is an up-and-coming DC with great ideas, some of which might strike the reader as rather obvious, but sure. (I liked the mix of genders and races in the force, which wasn’t too heavy-handed and never felt token, but was a good representation of Hampstead policing, I imagine.) And then there’s Karen – who gets her psychologist boyfriend into the picture.
And here is where we get the title. This boyfriend draws up a profile of the murderer, to help the police narrow their search a little. Some of it is rather clever; some of it is blindingly self-evident. An awful lot of weight is put on it, however much the psychologist is keen to emphasise that it is only a profile. And an awful lot of weight of the novel is put on it. Thankfully the writing and characters are strong enough to help this device support the novel.
I shan’t give any more away – but events, of course, develop, and there are a few more twists and turns before we get to the solution. Throughout, it is rollicking good fun, with the right dose of seriousness, and a very well worked level of nitty-gritty police work and non-tedium. That is, nobody could find much interest in observing the actual close workings of a police unit, which are doubtless painstaking and lengthy, but Fraser-Sampson makes us feel like we’ve seen it, without ever making the prose feel anything other than pacey and exciting.
It even feels pacey and exciting during the section which felt, to me, like a misfire – where we get fully immersed in a particular set of Golden Age characters, through role play. I shan’t say which, in case it is a pleasant surprise, but I found it fell perhaps on the side of self-indulgence. But that may be because I rather dislike the books that they referred to. (And, incidentally, another detective novel – very obscure – is used to help lift the veil from the police’s eyes. I couldn’t work out why such an obscure novel was referenced when a not-at-all-obscure Agatha Christie novel has more or less the same plot, and could have been used instead.)
If you want to be transported to the Golden Age, the chances are you will just pick up an Agatha Christie. And her plots are better than this one, good though it is; unsurprisingly, Fraser-Sampson doesn’t reach her genius level of murder mystery plotting, because nobody comes close. But the conclusion certainly isn’t disappointing, and doesn’t let down the well plotted and suspenseful novel that precedes it. So, don’t necessarily come here expecting something bathed in 1930s murder mystery glory – but do come hoping for the 21st century equivalent. The tone has shifted, and the world has changed, but there remains something of the same spirit. Perhaps, if the Golden Age gang were alive today, this is how they would have changed too, and Death in Profile is the sort of novel that, having changed, they might have written.
Simon is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Guy Fraser-Sampson, Death in Profile (Urbane Publications, 2016). 978-1910692936, 320pp., paperback.
A version of this review originally appeared at Vulpes Libris.
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