I spent a lot of my early childhood in Cardiff. It is a place that has a lot of emotional resonance for me, but I haven’t read much crime fiction set in the city. I was intrigued, therefore, to discover that Harry Bingham’s latest book, Talking to the Dead is set in and around Cardiff. As it turned out, the book was intriguing for an entirely different reason and I found it to be an unsettling and unusual read.
Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths is investigating her first murder case where a woman and her six year old daughter have been killed in a squalid Cardiff flat. The woman had in her possession the credit card of a wealthy businessman who was killed in a plane crash months earlier. The child’s brutal death appall the investigating team and when a prostitute is also found murdered, police are convinced that they are looking for the same killer. Fi feels an instinctive affinity with the victims to the extent that she believes that both touching the bodies and examining photographs of the dead family will help her solve the case. However her obsession brings her into the heart of danger, while revealing a shocking truth about her own past.
I thought it was an interesting concept to have as the main protagonist a female cop who is at the bottom of the ladder in the hierarchical police environment. It is only Fi’s voice we get to hear – written in the first person and present tense it is a compelling voice although it did take me a while to get into the narrative style. There are hints throughout the story that Fi has a unique approach to life and this is opened up fully later on in the book. The revelations about both Fi’s past and her psychiatric problem are interesting enough to make me want to read more of her story in future books.
Some parts of the book I thought were fairly shocking. I don’t like excessive violence in my crime novels and if it’s there then it has to be for a reason. In Talking to the Dead there are some scenes which I found distressing but on reflection I thought they were rightly so. We are reading about the death of a six year old girl and perhaps glossing over the level of violence would have taken away some of the emotional resonance of the killing. There is also a scene where Fi (deliberately) locks herself inside the mortuary for the night. Again, I winced at a couple of scenes but have to admire a writer who is prepared to go there. It didn’t seem gratuitous in light of Fi’s personality although it could have distasteful in any other context.
So, quite an unusual book and given the amount of crime fiction I read, that is fairly surprising. I’m looking forward to reading more in this series and not only because of the setting. Incidentally, anyone familiar with Cardiff will recognise many of the places in the book.