Nature red in tooth and claw: a fox motif begins “Dead of Winter”. Firstly a jobbing gardener leafleting a locality disturbs a fox and discovers a body in the grounds of an isolated, rented house just outside London. Secondly another fox and vixen help themselves to newborn lambs on a remote farm in Yorkshire. The newborns belonged to former policeman and ex-Special Forces soldier diagnosed with PTSD, Callum Carmichael, whose wife, daughter and a family friend were murdered thirteen years ago. A handprint links the Carmichael murders to the recent discovery in London.
Newly-recruited Ebony Willis is first on the scene at the second murder. Her Chief Inspector is reluctant to re-open the earlier case, which was mishandled, and she quickly learns that she is going to have to proceed with tact and diplomacy if she’s going to solve both cases with her career intact. When Callum Carmichael is made aware of the second murders, he is jolted into action. Without a powerful ally within the force, Ebony recognises that Carmichael could help her solve the cases, but can she trust him?
Ebony (she’s Ebony throughout; male police officers are referred to by surname but female officers by first names, the exception is Dr Harding, a man-eater with a cynical outlook) turns her attention to Carmichael’s wife’s friend, Cassie Newton. Cassie was the daughter of an eminent surgeon, famous for private cosmetic and transplant surgery and respected as a generous benefactor to charities. The surgeon was estranged from both Cassie and her mother, his ex-wife. The mother lost her life in a fire shortly after her daughter was murdered.
As Ebony follows the theory that Cassie was the intended victim and Carmichael’s wife and daughter extremely unfortunate bystanders, Carmichael follows a different lead: human traffickers. Via seedier nightclubs he finds a ‘fixer’, a club owner with contacts who can get hold of “girls”, mostly from Eastern Europe who then work as dancers and escorts in clubs. When the body of one of these “girls” turns up by the side of a motorway, missing several key organs, the police recognise they are looking at a team of bloodrunners. Gangs who abduct people with specific blood types and physical characteristics to order so their organs can be used in transplants, etc.
The police now have a motive for the earlier murders, having initially been baffled as to why there didn’t seem to be enough blood at the murder scene given the way the murders had been committed and also why body parts were missing. Meanwhile a fragment of a football shirt found at the isolated, rented house is tied to a missing person, an eleven-year-old adopted boy who left a football ground with a stranger. Ebony’s partner Carter discovers that the eminent surgeon’s capable assistant, who looks after the financial side of the surgeon’s private clinics and charity donations, has a previous arrest for rape and a sham marriage. Readers also learn he likes internet dating sites, an easy way to meet women that fit a profile and the medical knowledge to slip something into his date’s drink so he can take blood and other tests without their knowledge.
Whereas foxes only kill to eat or store food to eat later, particularly if there are cubs to feed, humans kill for more complex reasons, frequently with more violence and torturous intent. Under political pressure, can Ebony link and solve the two cases, without sacrificing her career, and find the missing boy to bring him to safety before the murderers strike again?
Lee Weeks deftly draws together both complex characters and a complex, multi-stranded plot. The settings are credible whether the characters are talking in an expensively furbished office in a private hospital, in a seedy nightclub where rats aren’t afraid to visit, the cramped hot-desking of the police operations base or briefly visiting the home of a witness. Even minor characters have three dimensions. The pace is fast, time is essential, but not rushed. There’s space for readers to take in what the detectives are learning and piece together motives.
“Dead of Winter” isn’t for readers who like their plots to follow a formula. It is for readers who want to meet fully-rounded characters and explore the grey area between good and bad and what motivates people to behave in the ways they do: why good people can do bad things and why bad people can sometimes be stopped. “Dead of Winter” is a genuinely gripping read.
By Emma Lee