Talking to the Dead – a review

Time for another review of a novel linked to my own writing.

Some months ago, my character of D.S. Sparkle Anwyl began to emerge, becoming the detective embroiled in “Seeking A Knife”. However, I had some problems making her believably Welsh. It was no good just living in Snowdonia, I needed more to work with.  So I embarked on extensive research. There was fiction reading as well, since I wanted to avoid plagiarising Welsh detectives, like Constable Evan Evans.

Then I discovered DC Fiona Griffiths and the bar was raised.

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Talking to the Dead (Fiona Griffiths #1)

by Harry Bingham

The first novel in a powerfully original new crime series featuring a young policewoman haunted by her own dark past.

It’s DC Fiona Griffiths’ first murder case – and she’s in at the deep end. A woman and her six-year-old daughter killed with chilling brutality in a dingy flat. The only clue: the platinum bank card of a long-dead tycoon, found amidst the squalor.

DC Griffiths has already proved herself dedicated to the job, but there’s another side to her she is less keen to reveal. Something to do with a mysterious two-year gap in her CV, her strange inability to cry – and a disconcerting familiarity with corpses.

Fiona is desperate to put the past behind her but as more gruesome killings follow, the case leads her inexorably back into those dark places in her own mind where another dead girl is waiting to be found…

My review:

Fiona ‘Fi’ Griffiths might be a junior officer assigned to a fraud investigation, but she’s willing to manoeuvre herself onto the team investigating the murders in a dingy flat. Her intelligence, among other clever moves and clandestine activities, is a key factor in her unravelling the links between the two cases. I knew that she would struggle until the justice that she demanded was implemented; but I was never quite sure whether she would prevail.

Those brains have earned her a degree, and set her apart from many colleagues. [Note: The College of Policing has proposed that, “Every new constable from 2019 could be required to have a degree – or agree to work towards an equivalent qualification.]

This active mind is a facet of a complex character that is well described through her POV. That voice is distinctive, revealing and never feels like the author. The voice of Fi kept me reading, wanting her to battle through everything thrown at her, some from outside and some from in herself, or in her past.

But it becomes clear from Fi’s words that she struggles to be part of ‘Planet Normal’ and the author makes that part of her engrossing personality. Her weirdness worked for me, leading the reader down murky paths on Cardiff’s darker side, and in her mind.

Fi is not your conventional detective, nor are her methods. She is a complex character and she shoves the investigation in unexpected directions. The author weaves words and phrases with style, bringing this world of Cardiff alive, for me at least. This was a different Wales from the area I know – Snowdonia – and yet there were glimpses of the rural roots at the country’s heart, and those roots are an intrinsic part of Fi.

Some readers have criticised the writer for creating a policewoman that would fail her first psych test. But I’m with those that realise that her intelligence gives Fi the edge in working the system in her favour. There were moments when I felt she might be bending the rules precariously, but she has the ability – and luck – to evade crashing over the precipice, this time. And if she can confuse her colleagues, what chance have the criminals.

The novel is not just about an investigation – that would make this just another crime read. This is about Fi and her personal attitudes, demons, and questions, so I’m full of praise for the way that Harry Bingham pulls this off, especially in the final chapter. A superb read that compels me to read the rest of the series.

*

As for my own detective and similarities, Fi and Sparkle are… a whole country apart, and more. Fi is from South Wales, Sparkle from the North and Snowdonia. Both quirky yes but not in the same way. No University education for Sparkle, she’s got her experience on the beat…and with the bullies at school. Sparkle’s deductive techniques are not Fi’s, although they might work together. And their means of dealing with criminals is very different.

No real comparison, but a definite benchmark.

 

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Sparkle Anwyl: Sleuth or Sidekick?

After learning something about the ‘murder suspect’ Twyla Locke, it’s now time to meet the second character in “Fates Maelstrom”, my 2015 NaNoWriMo novel.

As this is the opening mystery in the North Wales-based series, “Snowdon Shadows”, the interviewee has to be a reoccurring character.

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Noomi Rapace – Photo by Emma Hardy for British Vogue ~ Sparkle look-alike

So meet Meinwen Sparkle Anwyl, a twenty-four year-old Welsh detective constable with Pwllheli CID, part of the North Wales Police or Heddlu Gogledd Cymru.

If you are with Pwllheli CID, aren’t you outside your patch here in Craig-o-Niwl?

Technically yes, but I got assigned to help Detective Sergeant Mal Sumnor. He’s the officer investigating the suspected murder of Aubrey Locke.

I know the area well as I have family here – my mother’s parents have a sheep farm that borders with Hawktrewen Estate. This is my chance to help the community by solving an unresolved case. D.S Sumnor also needs my language skills.

Because you’re Welsh? Don’t all Heddlu have to be bilingual?

Yes, he needed that qualification to join the force, just like me. He speaks good Welsh for an Englishman, but he needed someone that spoke Romani. His Detective Inspector insisted that we talk to the suspect Twyla Locke in her own language, although she speaks Welsh and English.

Growing up, I visited my grandparents often. So I came into contact with Twyla’s people, and picked up Romani. Maybe that could become my third language, if I used it enough.

But they’re proud people that don’t suffer outsider fools well. DS Sumnor needs to tread carefully, if he wants to solve this case.

Are you concerned about the case? What do you think is going to happen next?

People will take sides, I fear. It won’t be easy remaining objective in my dealings with people I know. But that is a key part of the job. Hopefully, I can ensure that the victim gets justice, and the guilty are found. But I might have my hands tied by a senior officer that judges me by my appearance.

Do fellow officers judge you? What’s so strange about your looks?

My D.I, Fay Baines, doesn’t judge. She’s always been supportive. But there are others that have an attitude. I try to play down my image, especially when on duty. Off-duty, I’m probably more relaxed and unwilling to mention my job – and that can be useful if I’m undercover. What do you expect from a Goth policewoman?

Goth might explain your appearance. How would you describe your looks?

Dark and elusive. My looks are deceptive as I have dyed my dark brown hair to black. Before I changed my looks, some would say I was a typical Welsh girl. I’ve still got the heart-shaped face and pale white skin, but I’ve added strong black eyeliner, green eye-shadow and deep red lipstick.

The look seems subdued at the moment. Is that because you are on duty?

I sometimes wear this black trouser suit when I’m visiting families or for some interviews, like today’s. But, even on-duty, the norm is my black leather biker jacket, black T-shirt, black jeans, and my black Doctor Marten Dalton boots. Usually I add a studded black choker, black belt with studs and silver buckles, and black leather studded wrist.

Is there something that makes you a good detective?

Thinking outside the box? I never like to jump to the first conclusion, and try to find that hidden truth. A weird sort of deduction, some might say, especially when I use the studs on my bracers to work through the key points. If there’s no notepad to hand, then I can remember the points by letters that become a mnemonic. I also get what I call “a tingle in my tattoos” when something is wrong.

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2013 Kawasaki Ninja 250r

You have tattoos? They aren’t obvious.

Well the Police rules are specific, and say things like, “You should not have tattoos which could cause offence”

I was aware of the rules when I first thought about joining the force. Then I remembered that when I got my first tattoo at sixteen. I chose angel wings joined by a white rose on my shoulders. My second tattoo was stylized rose with thorns, on my lower back. The final tattoo is a small one on my hip of a thorny rose.

Hopefully the thorns are symbolic. What is your worst fear?

Swimming pools send shivers up my spine. All because I was nearly drowned at school by a bully trying to repeatedly duck me underwater. I now find that chlorinated water triggers the memory of swallowing foul-tasting water. But in the line of duty, I can handle pools. However, I’m still an avid swimmer, but that has to be wild swimming, in the sea off the Llyn Peninsula, or in suitable lakes or rivers in the area.

That would keep you fit and healthy, crucial for overpowering some criminals. Do you see yourself as heroic?

Well I’m a kookie crime buster that helps her community, but doesn’t conform, and doesn’t have a cape – just a super bike. But heroic is too emotive. I do my job, and although I suspect that some see me as an intense weirdo that is incapable of doing a normal policing job, I get results, even if the approach can seem offbeat.

Do you actually have a super bike?

It’s more of a sport bike, although it’s powerful enough for me. It’s a black Kawasaki Ninja 250r. When I bought it, second-hand for £3,500, with my mechanic brother Owen’s help, some of the family said I should have bought a second-hand car. Why? I get to drive enough squad cars at work, and leaning a bike into bends is much more fun. It was neon green, but, because that wasn’t my colour, my brother re-sprayed it for me, I dream of a black 2015 Indian Scout – but that would be outside my means.

Are you going to die in this story? Should you?

I don’t intend to give up that easily. I always say, “Failure is not an option,” so that has to be the same for ‘death’. I don’t even think my most negative colleagues would want that. However, if my death helped in some way then it might be acceptable. But then I can’t be in a sequel.

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Twyla Locke: Murderess or Scapegoat?

Time to meet the first character in “Fates Maelstrom”, my 2015 NaNoWriMo novel. And the opening mystery in the North Wales-based series, “Snowdon Shadows”. As some of the characters appear in the sequels, the key question is, “Who survives to tell the tale?”

Twyla Anemone Locke?

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In the opening scene, this nineteen year-old Welsh gypsy girl, is the main suspect in a murder, and being grilled by the police.

So Twyla, why should we care about you?

I want the chance to help my family and my community in Craig-o-Niwl, and I need someone to listen to my side of things before the mouthy men – the police or Heddlu – jump to conclusions because of my gypsy blood.

I just want to continue studying for my Diploma in Horticulture at Northop College. But all that changed when I got arrested for my English grandfather’s murder. Why me? I loved my Pappus, so I must be innocent. I spent time with him at his home, Hawktrewen Park, because I adored him.

My apologies. It’s hard not to pry. Is there a reason for their suspicion?

Other than the evidence they claim to have? I’m not good at being accused of something. All my guilt turns on me. The voices come back. The past mistakes. My blood.

What voices? What mistakes? Are these important to your character?

The voice feels like a shadow haunting me. It has lurked throughout my life – in my memories, experiences, and nightmares. I can hear her voice. Yes, she’s a girl like me. I’ve always been aware of her shadow, ever since my first bad dream. My earliest memory is a nightmare of a boat on a lake and clinging onto someone for life. It was explained as a genetic memory of my parents – of my dad Alex saving my mum Jewell and their unborn child from drowning – the night that I was born.

When I was a kid, the shadow became my invisible friend, called Midge.  I talked to her and even blamed her – she was the sister I never had. She was my confidante when hiding in bushes or trees away from other kids. And when I was sick, then so was Midge.

Now I’ve been arrested for a murder that I can’t remember commiting. When I was younger, I could have blamed Midge. If the shadow is real could it steal my ID, my memories, and my life? Because some people feel that my madness and amnesia is a means to hide from my guilt.

They say that I’m a serial offender and a juvenile delinquent. But the crimes were real petty – not even bad ones…all misunderstandings. It’s just prejudice because I’m a gypsy. Okay there were four charges but I can explain them all, if anyone gives me the chance – which they don’t.

Are we talking about prejudice because of race?  

My dark, foreign looks make me stand out. Some might be kind and say they’re exotic. My skin might be olive, and could be called Mediterranean. But there’s more Eastern blood in me – mixed with the gaje from my dad. The dark brown eyes and black hair must be from my gypsy mother. Maybe the strong bones and muscles are my father, but they make me like a tomboy, when I dress in jeans.

How would you describe your personality?

I lack self-confidence and will often question myself. But that’s better than acting too quick. When compared with friends, I’m an overweight underachiever. I’ve yet to do what my parents dreamt of doing. They died before they could make the community better. On good days I am determined. But more often it’s better to close the world off, and deal with things in my head. 

Do people understand you? Or do they all shun you?

People close to me, like my fellow gypsies at Horn’s Rhych, they understand me. However, I often wonder if other people understand me. Even friends at college can act weird towards me – asking ‘is that what Gypsies think/do/like?’, or even expecting me to read their hands or cards. One even produced a crystal ball. I’m just a gardening student not a fortune teller.

But some folks are antagonistic. ‘You’re different’, ‘you smell’, ‘my phone got stolen… by her.’ The mouthy men think that about not just me. I’m an outsider and so are my people.

Yet the locals come to the Rhych and buy plants and food from us. Most of them don’t stare or act rude. The Welsh have been treated badly themselves, so understand about prejudice. You could say that the English are the outsiders, or invaders, that took the land and the prime jobs. But then I’m part Locke, and they’re the local English landowners.

What is your worst fear?

I’m terrified of dying young like my parents – at 19 like my mother. That’s why I’m afraid of lakes – they died on Lake Como. Drowned. Well, my father did, having saved my mum. But then she died a few hours later giving birth… to me. And I’m now nineteen and it will be months before my twentieth birthday, so it could still happen.

What do you think is going to happen next?

The mouthy men will find me guilty of murdering my Pappus. That will cause trouble between my two families, and mean the end of Horn’s Rhych. And the end of my parents dreams for Craig-o-Niwl and Hawktrewen estate.

What are you going to achieve in this story?

I need to prove my innocence, or someone else has too. And find the real killer. If not then I must ensure that the two communities don’t blame each other for my failure. My ancestors will not forgive me, even if they can torment the murderer. They are talking to me already. Their eyes see everything.

Are you going to die in this story?

I hope that I live. Unless my death helps solve the crime. Or is my health going to kill me? What would be the point of that? I need to die achieving something.

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