Review by Rob Spence
East Anglia has quite a lot of previous when it comes to crime fiction: Colin Watson’s chronicles of Flaxborough, James Runcie’s Grantchester mysteries, and Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey series all make use of the particular topography of the fen country. Looming over them all of course is Dorothy Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, probably the most satisfying of the Peter Wimsey canon. The extremes of weather, the general air of bleakness and the echoes of ancient cultures make for a compelling location for murder. Alex Walters, who has set previous crime novels in places as diverse as Mongolia and the Scottish highlands, now introduces Detective Inspector Winterman, returning under something of a cloud to the area of his childhood in this splendid new novel.
As if the place wasn’t bleak enough, Walters sets this novel in the harsh winter of early 1947, when record snowfalls added to an already grim existence for the local people, still struggling under post-war rationing, and hoping to turn the promises of the new Labour government into reality. Winterman, a fine example of nominative determinism in this context, has left behind a post and an apparently promising career to run a small investigation unit in a rural backwater. The reason for this move becomes apparent as we progress: suffice to say that Winterman’s past is complicated. The case that presents itself is odd: the semi-mummified bodies of small children, apparently dead for years, are appearing around the village, the remains semi-preserved by the chemical action of the wetlands. But who are they, and who has exhumed them? To add to this mystery, the local ex-priest, who has found one of the bodies, is himself murdered. Winterman soon finds himself having to cope with an escalating body-count and a web of deceit going back to the war years.
Walters moves the plot along briskly, writing in short chapters that hold the reader’s attention, while managing to make his characters credible, three-dimensional beings. Winterman is the main focus, and his tragic past defines his character to some extent. Marsh and Hoxton, his two-man team, are well differentiated: Marsh, the intense young local, and Hoxton the more world-weary incomer. The village policeman, Bryan Brain, seems at first to be there for comic relief, but becomes a vital part of the plot later on, and the police contingent is completed by the efficient yet mysterious Mrs Sheringham and the young widow Mary, whose mother finds another of the child bodies.
The sense of a community under siege by events as well as the weather is well evoked by the author, and there are some telling period details, especially concerning the gruelling daily grind, as the inhabitants try to prise some pleasure from life in the austerity Britain of the immediate post-war years. The historical detection field is a crowded one, but this is a classy and engaging addition to the genre. It is to be hoped that we haven’t seen the last of Winterman.
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Alex Walters, Winterman (Bloodhound, 2019) 978-1912986156, paperback, 434 pages.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)