Blood Line by Lynda La Plante
Blood Line by Lynda La Plante (Bourbon Street Books, 2012) is the seventh book in the Anna Travis series. Originally published in the UK in 2011, it deals with the most difficult of all cases: that of a suspected murder where the police cannot find the body. Under the more usual circumstances, the medical expert performs a post mortem and proves the cause of death. Other evidence can then be identified to show the accused had motive and opportunity to be the cause of that death. But without a body there’s always a chance of embarrassment. Let’s suppose the police rely on circumstantial evidence as “proof” that a crime has been committed. They insist on a prosecution. The case comes to court and the jury is about to convict when the “deceased” walks into court and suggests someone, somewhere has made a mistake. Aware of the danger, the prosecuting authorities therefore require a higher than usual standard of proof to show the alleged victim was alive at the relevant time, and then killed in a particular way. Suffice it to say, this makes conviction difficult unless the accused confesses.
In this direct sequel to Blind Fury, Anna Travis is newly promoted to Detective Chief Inspector and is just finishing off her first major case in charge. In fact, this was not a challenging case. Uncertain whether his decision to appoint her was correct given her grief following the death of her fiancé, Detective Chief Superintendent James Langton wanted to give her a gentle introduction to the higher rank. He hoped she would begin to show sigs of emotional recovery. Unfortunately, she drifts through the case competently but with no signs of rediscovering the old spark. Putting off the decision whether to transfer her to a desk job, he insists she looks into a missing persons case. Edward Rawlins, an usher they both know at the Old Bailey, has reported his son Alan missing. Although it’s only two weeks, he’s convinced something terrible has happened.
Anna Travis and Detective Sergeant Paul Simms therefore make desultory inquiries, but apart from finding Tina, the partner of two years, less than likeable, they have little evidence to suggest anything criminal has happened. Langton urges more effort and, slowly, the pair begin to wonder whether the emerging picture of a paragon of virtue who has unexpectedly disappeared is credible. It’s all a bit too pat and they both find Tina’s attitude disconcerting. Against their better judgement and with little more than gut instinct to rely on, they get a search warrant for the flat occupied by the couple. Bingo! They find evidence of major blood spillage both in the bedroom, the passageway to the bathroom, and in the bathroom itself. A significant amount of effort and several bottles of bleach have been invested in clearing it all away. What little they can find that has not been adulterated by the bleach does not produce a DNA match to the parents. Then the sad story comes out. Knowing her husband was infertile, the wife secretly had a fertilsed egg implanted. Poor Edward Rawlings discovers he has been deceived as to parentage. There’s worse to come as the son’s reputation for perfection starts to fray round the edges.
Put all this together and you have a slow accumulation of detail as the expanding team get to work on tracking down all the possible leads. The problem is as to the scope of the investigation. All the circumstantial evidence points to Tina’s involvement. At the very least, she probably assisted in cleaning up the mess. But the real problem is the uncertainty as to who died. It’s possible that Alan died and was cut up in the bathroom. It’s equally likely Alan killed a third party, disposed of the body and is now in hiding. Charging Tina as either a principal or an accessory to the murder of a person unknown is going to be very difficult. Anna Travis therefore decides to expand the investigation. This brings her into direct conflict with Langton. He does not want to spend a lot of money on an open-ended inquiry. He either wants the case solved (probably only charging Tina as an accomplice assuming she will not confess) or the case dropped. Anna Travis must decide whether she’s going to stand up for what she believes is right and take responsibility for pushing ahead. With her emotional state getting more brittle and her relationship with a new member of the team strained, can she pull herself out of her depression? Or must Langton save her from herself and push her into a “safe” job?
Some of the characterisation is very effective. In particular, the tragic circumstances in the Rawlins household is affecting. I’m not wholly convinced by the chameleon nature of Alan’s personality — he seems not completely consistent — but Tina and the women who work at her salon are beautifully skewered. We see just enough of the others to move the story along without anything jarring or too obviously superficial. There’s quite a strong gay element involved and some stereotypical homophobia on display from one or two of those who come into view. Some readers may find this a deterrent. When we reach the end and understanding is complete, the motives of those involved prove to be the usual anger and greed. As in the real world, not everyone emerges from the wreckage with credit. This sense of realism in the outcomes is heartening. In the good old days of crime fiction, we were shown worlds of black and white where few were forced to face the consequences of their actions. Today, the best writers people their work with characters who live on the edge of sadness and loss. No-one is “comfortable” unless they are engaging in some degree of self-deception. As police procedurals go, Blood Line is elegantly detailed and its attention to detail and the slow release of new facts keeps us moving forward to a satisfying ending.
For a review of another book by Lynda La Plante, see Blind Fury.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.