Title: Devil’s Game
Author: Patricia Hall
Publisher: Allison & Busby 
No. of pages: 301 [hardcover]
In the West Yorkshire town of Bradfield Karen Barnstable disappears after participating in a ‘strangers have sex in public’ meet-up (the book calls it dogging which is not a phrase I’ve come across before) (apparently I’ve led quite the sheltered life). DCI Michael Thackery and his team take a while to unravel this aspect to her disappearance given all the participants’ unwillingness to admit to their activities but they doggedly pursue the evidence. In a parallel thread Thackery’s live-in partner, journalist Laura Ackroyd, becomes increasingly intrigued by her investigation into the takeover of the local comprehensive school by wealthy born-again Christian, David Murgatroyd.
The writing here is way above average. There’s a passage at the beginning where a young policewoman of Pakistani heritage has to interview the man who has reported his wife missing. The first line out of his mouth when he opens the door to her is “Are you the best they could send?” which combined with the racist political sticker in the window gives a pretty clear indication of how things will go. The scene plays out over only a couple of pages but manages to beautifully depict two very strong characters (the belligerent racist and the slightly nervous constable resigned to doing her job regardless of the treatment she receives).There’s a palpable sense of the tension building up in the room too. The rest of the book lives up to this early promise: having consistently concise yet evocative writing. Even the dialogue of locals is written in such a way that I heard it in a Yorkshire accent (well my inner voice’s version of that accent which sounded realistic enough to me).
I can’t think of anything terribly unique about the characters although they did engage me. Thackery reminded me a little of P D James’ Adam Dalgliesh. He doesn’t write poetry but he’s the same kind of intelligent loner (with all the pros and cons that brings) and is also haunted, sometimes to the point of inertia, by dramatic events from his past. I wanted to give him a good slap a couple of times which is often how I feel about Dalgliesh. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Laura Ackroyd who seemed to be the kind of determined, investigative journalist we don’t see much of in the mainstream media these days. She and Thackery dealt with some personal issues in the book which I sometimes find a bit boring but here the balance between this and the rest of the plot was about right.
The plot is solidly constructed and credible but the climax wasn’t terribly surprising. Still I enjoyed finding out if my guess for the villain’s motivation was correct. I couldn’t get my head around how a private person could effectively take over a government-funded school but a stint on Google sorted out the intricacies of the English school system for me. I quite like it when books force me head off to ‘research’ (that sounds better than google as a verb doesn’t it?) because I can pretend I’m learning something useful and not just sitting around entertaining myself like a dilettante.
I’d not read a word by this author until the review copy of this book landed on my doormat although I now know there are 14 previous books in this series, the first of which was published in 1993. There were certainly references to previous events in Devil’s Game but not enough to prevent me enjoying this story on its own and any absolutely necessary explanations were succinctly provided. Having recently had a very different experience with a book that wasn’t the first in its series I was particularly grateful for this. I will be looking for more books in this series and can certainly recommend Devil’s Game if you’re at all interested in well-plotted police procedurals.
My rating 4/5
I was provided with a free copy of this book for review from the publisher via Murder & Mayhem bookclub