Shroud of Evil by Pauline Rowson
Shroud of Evil by Pauline Rowson (Severn House, 2014) sees the eleventh outing for Detective Inspector Andy Horton as he makes a guest appearance in the courts on the Isle of Wight and reviews the state of his ignorance as to what happened to his mother thirty years ago. A newspaper article read while waiting for the case to be called suggests he should try contacting Lord Eames again. Although the man has denied knowledge of his mother’s disappearance, Horton does not believe him. He therefore decides to make an unannounced visit at his estate on the coast. He’s been quietly investigating an old photograph which shows a group of six young men. Three are dead. Apart from Lord Eames, he’s not been able to track down the other two even though he has names for them: Anthony Dormand and Rory Mortimer. When he walks along the beach outside the estate, he meets an interesting man. With no-one apparently at home, he returns to base in Portsmouth, where he’s given a missing persons case. It seems a private investigator has gone AWOL. That his body later turns up on the beach outside Lord Eames’ estate on the Isle of Wight is not the kind of coincidence our hero likes. Particularly when the fact of his visit to the fringe of the estate has been recorded by surveillance cameras but not reported to the police. It seems everyone has complicated motives in play.
Which leads to a more general structural point about how best to plot a long-running series. Obviously, the first books can be introductory as to characterisation and be more-or-less standalone as police procedural cases to investigate. But there comes a point when the broader narrative arcs of who these people are and how they relate to each other comes to the fore. This will tend to be when the author has begun to make decisions about how some of the plot lines are going to be resolved. There’s just one problem. Unless the main series character is going to quit his or her job and devote all available resources to solving the key personal mystery, we’re left with an uneasy balance between the cases that come along for investigation and the steps necessary to move the metanarrative along.
So here we have Horton beginning to make progress in the investigation of his mother’s disappearance but, for now, Rowson wants to keep him in the Portsmouth CID. This is a convenient vehicle for providing him with appropriate resources and some degree of cover for his activities. But this also requires a series of coincidences to enable him to meet the people he needs to meet to acquire the next pieces of the puzzle. I’m not raising this issue as a complaint. In fact, this book is a very fine example of a series character making significant discoveries. The emerging backstory and explanations feel credible. For these purposes, there’s also a clever justification for there being a Portsmouth connection both when his mother disappeared and now. So I’m still impressed by this series and it’s left in a very interesting position at the end of this episode.
As to the actual murder to be investigated, this has everything going for it. The murder method is unusual. Where death occurred is uncertain. The disposition of the body in an old sail as a shroud is intriguing. And there’s a serious problem in understanding the character of the victim and precisely what work he was doing. Although there seems be a reasonably clear private investigation in progress to determine whether a husband is cheating on his wife, it’s going to be a stretch to tie the potentially errant husband to the killing. Despite the links to him, he looks to have an alibi for the time the killing is likely to have taken place. This leads to the general conclusion Shroud of Evil is an excellent continuation of the series but, to get the best out of it, you must have read some of the previous books. Knowing who everyone is helps give the book added value. So there you have it. We continue to edge slowly towards a thriller or possibly MI5, more political scenario giving the broader narrative considerably more heft.
For a review of another book by Pauline Rowson, see Death Surge.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.