When I start a new series about a British police detective, I hope to find that it has something about it that will keep my interest and set it apart from all the other series out there competing for my attention. ‘Talking To The Dead’ delighted me by delivering something well-written, engaging and original.
From the start, I was impressed with Harry Bingham’s prose. Without ever dropping into the kind of purple prose passaged that are the fiction writer’s equivalent of the self-indulgent always-too-long guitar solos that used to plague Rock bands once upon a time, he writes in a way that does more than carry the story forward. The main character, Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths is odd. Everyone knows that, including Fiona herself. Harry Bingham conveys this oddness in the way in which he describes the world as seen through Fiona’s eyes. In crime fiction in particular, the quality of the writing makes the difference between mundane and marvellous. This internal monologue from Fiona, describing her reaction to hospitals, is an example of the marvellous.
‘I’m not good with hospitals, the endless buildings, trees dotted around like apologies and inside, it’s job functions you can’t understand and that air of incomprehensible busyness. Curtained off beds and death settling like falling snow.'”
It shows me that Fiona is bright and educated and that she’s a little off. It also makes me wonder about her own experience of hospitals. The imagery goes beyond utilitarian without being self-consciously lyrical. There’s a lot of this kind of writing in the book.
What every police series needs is a detective who is something more than a voice-over rehearsing the plot, misdirecting the reader’s attention, and shouting ‘Eureka’ at the appropriate moment. The detective needs to have a personality, to feel real, and not to be bland.
Fiona Griffiths, the newly-minted Detective Constable working the South Wales Police, is a fascinating character. Harry Bingham took me right inside her head. Being there didn’t always help me to understand her but it did allow me to experience her. That was enough to whet my curiosity that I was more interested in her than the crimes she was trying to solve. What I enjoyed was that the problems that Fiona Griffiths has aren’t related to the abuse of drink or drugs or emotional scars from failed relationships or guilt over past sins but to who she is and how she thinks. Fiona is very bright. She’s also odd to the point of being at risk of lapsing into debilitating mental illness. We know from early in the book that she was ill for a couple of years as a teenager. We also know she ‘got better’ and went on to academic success at University. It takes most of the book to find out what the illness was and the limited extent to which it’s true that she ‘got better’.
Of course, good writing and a strong main character aren’t enough. There have to be other people that I can believe in and a crime that is complex but credible. Harry Bingham surrounds Fiona with people who are almost as odd as she is. Her father, who has made a career on the edges of legality. An ex-policeman who is what Fiona might become. A martial arts trainer with an unorthodox past and opaque motivations. He also gives her a boss who is the perfect blend of chiding and supporting.
The crime turned out to be grittier than I expected. I liked watching Fiona pull the disparate pieces into a pattern that made sense. The pattern involves violence against sex workers. I liked that the descriptions of these women were neither judgemental nor sentimental.
Talking To The Dead’ is the first book in a series that is currently six books strong. I have no idea where the series is going to go after the end of the first book but I’m looking forward to finding out.
I recommend the audiobook, narrated by Siriol Jenkins. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.