Cry of the Children by J M Gregson
As we start Cry of the Children by J M Gregson (Severn House, 2013) the twenty-sixth in the Lambert and Hook Mystery series, Chief Superintendent Lambert, along with Detective Sergeants Bert Hook and Ruth David, is confronted by a case of abduction. Lucy Gibson is seven-years-old and a slight underperformer in school. Her “uncle” takes her to the fair. He thinks he has his eye on her as she goes on a ride but, when it stops, there’s no sign of her. So, in the best traditions of barkers who puff the wares of the different side shows on fair grounds, “Roll up, roll up! Test your detective strength on a Golden Age style child abduction and murder mystery. See the ex-husband as he huddles in his boarding house. Be amazed by the new man in the missing child’s life who may have something to hide. Look warily at the old paedophile as he lurks in his house near the abduction scene. Be worried about the slightly slow but powerful woman who took a baby in the past. Allow your prejudice a moment’s freedom when you see the Irish roustabout with sometimes more than voyeurism on his mind. And speculate on whether the mother would have a motive for spiriting her own child away.”
Although I’m approaching the review with a note of levity, this should not disguise the profoundly disturbing nature of the crime under investigation. To abduct and kill a defenceless child is one of the worst forms of homicide. Because we’ve grown less trusting as a society, parents are now more vigilant. There’s less tolerance for those who do not fit the prevailing standards of normality. So, for example, single men who spend time in play areas for children or near schools quickly become suspect and individuals with mental health problems can find themselves excluded from social activity when their behaviour triggers a prejudiced response. For the police, the list of suspects quickly comes down to the missing parent who has a motive to take the child, locals with criminal records indicating some predisposition to “attack” children, and those individuals in the community whose behaviour has been picked up in gossip. It’s all about motive and opportunity.
This is a story told by the omniscient author and, in this instance, I feel it places a slight barrier between the reader and the emotions of the characters. The technical problem, if course, is that once you open the door to different points of view, it’s easy to let slip the identity of the killer(s) before time. That’s why the classic police procedurals and detective stories tend to use a single character detective as the point of view. The result in this case is an admirable example of a puzzle to solve with a limited number of suspects. None of them have properly verifiable alibis and all have the means to commit the crime. In different ways, the individuals are either the usual victims of prejudice or unsympathetic for some reason. To keep the necessary distance, the characters are only lightly sketched, barely rising above stereotypes. So, I only empathised with one of those in the frame. I didn’t really care which of the others might have done it (assuming the more sympathetic person didn’t do it, of course).
Putting this together, Cry of the Children is a carefully constructed problem with the waters suitably muddied to ensure the reader does not get a clear view of which suspect(s) might have done it. We do get to see more of the series detectives and their narrative arcs advance. But it’s not as involving as other books of this type. So this book is for you if you want a puzzle to solve with absolutely everything in the investigation laid out for you to see. Ignoring the descriptions of what the suspects themselves are doing, you have a fair chance of working out who did it.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.