Source: Review copy
Publication: 2nd May 2019 from Orphans Publishing
Jack Johnson, newly divorced ex-journalist with a talent for trouble, takes a stranger on board his new narrow boat … and is soon caught up in a hunt for a serial killer, tangling with organised crime and on the run from the media. New crime thriller series perfect for fans of Dick Francis.
Disclaimer. I know Andy Griffee and for a time worked with him some years ago at the BBC. That nearly put me off reviewing this book, because I worried about being unable to be objective. And then I thought of all the crime writers I have got to know since starting to blog about books, and how that never stops me from reviewing what they write. So I thought, sod it, and what follows is my uninfluenced take on Andy Griffee’s debut novel.
Jack Johnson is a journalist. I doubt there is such a thing as an ex-journalist; those instincts never disappear and the need to tell a story is uppermost in whatever they do. Fresh from a break up with his wife, looking to start anew with a fraction of the capital he used to have and with no desire to re-mortgage into a life of solitary tedium, Jack decides to try another way of living.
With no experience and even less knowledge, he hires a narrow boat for a month, which he christens ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, with a view to living in it full time if he likes the ambience. It doesn’t take long before he’s at sea, and that’s before he’s even begun his canal journey. Fortune looks kindly on him though and as he struggles to get the measure of how to handle his temporary home, an obliging and attractive young woman steps up to the plate and shows him how it should be done.
When, at the last minute, Jack is let down by his promised travelling companion, a handsome, if roguish, actor called Will, it looks like Jack’s been grounded before his journey has even started. Fortunately for Jack, the young woman, Nina, is prepared to be helpful for a bit longer and though she sets strict ground rules for him, she agrees to help navigate the narrow boat through the waterways for a few days until Jack gets the hang of things.
Nina is something of an enigma, and she won’t brook any enquiries into her private life. But she is a dab hand on the tiller and soon the two are making their way through the canal system to Stratford.
Part of the joy of this book is in the meticulous detail of the canals and waterways around the Midlands; from Worcester to Stratford and Birmingham and then through to Bath. It is so easy to visualise the surrounding countryside from Griffee’s vivid descriptions. His sense of place and of an alternate way of life suffuses the pages to great effect.
The waterways carry their own sense of rhythm; nothing here is hurried or too adventurous, at least in the beginning. Early in their journey together they pull up to have lunch and do a little light shopping and Jack encounters a scruffy young man begging by the side of a shop with his dog, Eddie. Taking pity on Sam, he buys him lunch and offers him the use of his shower to clean up.
When Sam is later found dead in the canal, in a presumed accidental drowning, Jack can’t help but remember the blue Land Rover he’d seen the young man get into not long after he left the boat.
What Jack doesn’t know is that there is a killer on the canal towpaths. Someone who is obsessed with showing how clever his killings are and how many victims he can dispose of without getting caught. But is Sam the victim of a serial killer, or was he involved in something else that brought his young life to an abrupt end?
Jack and Nina begin to look into Sam’s life and their investigations lead them into in very murky waters where considerable danger lurks. Suddenly the calm and relaxed environment in which they have been travelling begins to unravel and their need to stay under the radar increases with every canal side stop they make.
Jack will need to make use of his journalistic experience if he is to ensure that he and Nina are not besieged the length and breadth of the waterways, something that would draw more than one set of unwelcome attentions to their door.
Neatly intertwining Nina’s personal story with the all too plausible impact of organised crime and an unexplained spike in canal side deaths, Griffee weaves a solid tale of nefarious doings which climax in a devastating game of cat and mouse. In so doing, he makes use of his own extensive journalistic experience to maximum impact.
Verdict: A welcome new voice in crime fiction imbued with a real sense of place. I look forward to the next instalment of Jumping Jack Flash.
Andy Griffee is a former BBC journalist and media consultant with a fascination for stories. He began his journalism career at the Bath Evening Chronicle, and then spent twenty-five years at the BBC, culminating in his role as Editorial Director of the redevelopment of Broadcasting House. Andy lives in Worcestershire and, when he isn’t writing, rears rare breed pigs, struggles to keep a 1964 Triumph Spitﬁre on the road and enjoys hiring narrowboats with his wife Helen.