Almost Love by Christina James

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Almost Love by Christina James

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: DI Yates is called in to investigate the mysterious disappearance of an aged archaeologist, while local ne'er-do-wells get caught up in the drugs trade. Heavy going.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 345 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Salt Publishing
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781907773464

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When you pick up a crime novel and it has the weight of a brick in your hand, your suspicions aren't immediately alerted. Many a gripping tale takes a while in the telling.

But when you open it and find tiny densely-packed print within, your heart might well sink. You know that this could be a long and unremitting journey.

I would love to report that you are wrong, and that the author has been ill-served by publisher and print-setter, but sadly I cannot. Almost Love is, I'm afraid, a good plot in need of a re-write.

Dame Claudia McRae is an ageing archaeologist. She was famous a long time ago, not only for being one of the first women in a male dominated profession, but also for the discovery of a Celtic-cum-Norse equivalent of the Rosetta Stone and the subsequent fascist linguistic argument that she built upon the basis of it.

As archaeology became more scientific, more about the people than the artefacts, her brand were slowly left behind. Nowadays, she doesn't even merit in invitation to the local Archaeological Society annual conference.

Then, in the middle of the night, she goes missing. There's no apparent break-in and nothing apparently stolen (though it would be hard to tell). She might be thought to have simply wandered off, but for a large and gruesome smear of blood on the wall of her entrance hall.

DI Yates is assigned to investigate. He's not best pleased. There's a major drugs investigation bubbling – and this missing old biddy isn't even on his patch.

Tom Tarrant is a child protection social worker. A regular chunk of his case-load is the Padgett family. In their latest foray on the wrong side of the law, young Thobias (sadly just now over the magical age of 12) has been caught flashing rolls of £20-notes around in the local café. For a 12-year-old from his kind of family, the lad is seriously lacking street-savvy. Did they never watch The Bill in Spalding?

Meanwhile Tom's wife Alex, secretary to the local Archaeological Society is teetering on the edge of an affair with the County Heritage Officer, who has some very weird ideas of how to show a girl a good time.

Obviously all of these events are linked in some way. Eventually.

I'll applaud anyone for writing about their home turf, for that is what they will evoke best, and James has a gift in the sprawling, largely unpopulated, slightly spooky (almost by definition) Lincs/Cambs fenland. She captures it well. If she falls into the rookie novelist's trap of being over-precise in road names and town mapping, we can forgive her that – I could mention a famous Scot that can be equally irritating on that score.

What really mars the book – and genuinely cries out for a tighter and more persistent edit – is the detail overkill and the stilted, forced dialogue. Any policeman worth his bacon butty would call-out the main characters as fabricators, had he to listen to the long and winding stories played out for the readers benefit under cover of conversation with close colleagues and spouses. Everything is explained to the enth degree, with barely a contraction, colloquialism or colourful expletive to be found.

If I had got home exceptionally late, in a big enough panic to crash through the door, slam it and bolt it, and covered in mud… and if my partner (even after the 'my god are you alright?' ' yes just a bit of a shock and a tumble on a dig site' explanation) said something even approximating: Lets get you out of this muddy coat. Take your shoes off as well – there are some thick socks here. Put them on to warm up your feet and I'll fetch you a fleece. Are you up for a drink? There's so much I want to tell you about what happened today …there might well be a murder!

No-one really talks like that. And most people know what thick socks are for and how to use them. Quite apart from the implication that our otherwise intelligent heroine might have traipsed round her own home dripping mud everywhere and shivering.

It's a small and silly sample, but it is in the vein of the whole. Conversations ramble on without driving the plot. There are domestic details that are raised to a point of importance but then left to be swept away or forgotten. The idle thoughts of everyone around are laid bare. In essence, the reader is forbidden the joys of interpretation, of deduction, of entering into the world and making of it what he will. Over-sharing is never attractive, no more in a book than in real life. That James has created her world so minutely is a good thing in the creation of the book – in that it is so very real in her own mind – but then she has skipped the next step of taking out everything we don't necessarily need to know and then the next of rendering what we do need to know in as few and as sharp words as possible.

There is actually a decent story behind all of this. There is even one suitably sudden – wasn't expecting that! – moment. But most of it takes some slow serious digging to get to… and towards the end, a lot of it is skated over in 'better round up' mode… leaving the story unbalanced by a lot of unnecessary weight.

I suspect DI Yates and his team will be back, but for his return to be welcome, I'd need a major stylistic overhaul.

For more crime from the eastern counties we recommend you get in early on the starting rung of DC Gary Goodhew's career in Cambridge Blue by Alison Bruce.

Christina James' DI Yates novels in chronological order

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