Killing the Beasts by Chris Simms

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Killing the Beasts by Chris Simms

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Curd
Reviewed by Paul Curd
Summary: A career-minded Manchester cop hunts a serial killer as his highflying friend descends into madness in this excellent police-procedural/psychological thriller cross. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2006
Publisher: Orion
ISBN: 978-0752877990

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Detective Inspector Jon Spicer is working on Operation Fisherman, investigating a gang of car thieves, when he responds to a call for help from a Community Support Officer. A woman has been murdered and, because there is a prologue, we already know pretty much how, but we don't know why. And, despite the prologue, we don't know whodunit. As the first detective on the scene, Spicer (or 'Jon', as Simms prefers to call his leading man) is made Senior Investigating Officer – it seems a straightforward enough case. So far, so bog standard you might think.

But when Jon gets home at the end of the day, things begin to take a turn for the slightly different. Jon is not an embittered alcoholic loner but a happily almost-married man. Instead of lighting up a cigarette, he chews a stick of gum. Instead of unscrewing the whisky bottle, Jon goes out for an after-work run with his pet boxer. He is career minded, but slightly concerned about being tied down by marriage and by the looming prospect of parenthood. It's Ian Rankin crossed with Nick Hornby.

Over supper, Jon's partner Alice tells him some gossip about his friend Tom Benwell, whom he used to play rugby with (it was Tom who gave up; Jon still plays). Alice has heard that Tom's wife has walked out on him after he lost his job. By all accounts, Tom has become a complete wreck.

The novel then follows Jon's investigation of the murders (for the first is rapidly followed by several more killings of young single women) in parallel to a series of extremely well-handled flashbacks showing why Tom lost his job and his wife, and cataloguing Tom's slow but terrible descent into psychotic mental illness.

Killing the Beasts is the first of the Jon Spicer series of novels. It is set in Manchester at the time of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and this is significant. Simms has created a great sense of place, but he has also shown how the glitz of the Games impacted on the city of Manchester and, especially, on Tom Benwell. Simms uses the metaphor of fireworks – the sudden shooting up to great heights, the spectacular display, the fall of the burnt-out case.

I have to say I found the female characters too thinly drawn in an otherwise excellent novel. The men are complex, fully-rounded characters. All the women, on the other hand, are little more than victims or potential victims. The only almost-exception is Nikki the Crime Scene Manager who, despite making only brief appearances, seems less of a simple cipher than the rest of her sex. The flirty relationship between her and Jon is expertly handled and deftly introduces another narrative question – will they or won't they take the flirting one step further?

I really enjoyed this book. I loved the main (male) characters. I loved the way Manchester was almost a character in its own right. I loved the depth to the story, and admired the skilful way Simm described the onset and development of Tom's illness. I enjoyed the way the author laid his false trails and red herrings. This is a book that works as an intricately plotted whodunit (the clues are all there) but also as a psychological mystery. And there's a breathless climax, too.


Further reading suggestion: John Harvey has a young, happily married cop in his recent novel Gone to Ground but (whisper it) you could do no better than go straight to the second book in the Jon Spicer series, Shifting Skin by Chris Simms.

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