Source: Review copy
Publication: 3 June 2021 from Constable
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review
Detective Sergeant Washington Poe is in court, fighting eviction from his beloved and isolated croft, when he is summoned to a backstreet brothel in Carlisle where a man has been beaten to death with a baseball bat. Poe is confused – he hunts serial killers and this appears to be a straightforward murder-by-pimp – but his attendance was requested personally, by the kind of people who prefer to remain in the shadows.
As Poe and the socially awkward programmer Tilly Bradshaw delve deeper into the case, they are faced with seemingly unanswerable questions: despite being heavily vetted for a high-profile job, why does nothing in the victim’s background check out? Why was a small ornament left at the murder scene – and why did someone on the investigation team steal it? And what is the connection to a flawlessly executed bank heist three years earlier, a heist where nothing was taken . . .
I love this series. Mike Craven sets off at a brisk pace and from then on you are running to keep up. From that opening sequence right through to the end I kept thinking that Mike Craven is the Banksy of the book world. Innovative, riveting and challenging hypocrisy at every turn, this is my kind of crime writer and Dead Ground is a corker of a book.
A killer with a strange signature, a heist conducted by the most unlikely villains and a challenge to Poe’s living arrangements are all part of this fast and furious mix of a devilish, cunning tight plot, riven through with humour and topped with real flashes of darkness and the odd Cumberland sausage or in Tilly’s case, vegan breakfast.
This book sees the return of some interesting characters, though as ever you can read this one as a stand-alone…but do yourself a favour and start from the beginning – it is so worth it.
Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw, from the Serious Crime Analysis unit (SCAS) of the National Crime Agency are engaged in serious business. Poe is up in court and Tilly is defending him…and it’s all going well until MI5 step in.
There’s been a murder and Poe and Tilly are need asap to look into it because the victim is linked to a high profile international trade summit hosted by the Government at the Scarness Hotel in Carlisle.
Oliver Bierman was a partner in a helicopter service with US former soldier, Patrick McDaid. Bierman’s tortured and badly beaten body has been discovered in an empty brothel. Because of the security implications both M15 agent, Hannah Finch, guided by the shadowy Alastor Locke, and FBI Agent Melody Lee known to Poe and Tilly from The Curator, are also working the case alongside our intrepid pair. Locke is a brilliant character. He’s an old school spook, wily and devious, prepared to exploit all weaknesses he finds. He’s a great sparring adversary for Poe and each comes to have a grudging respect for the other.
Examining Bierman’s body, pathologist Estelle Doyle finds some interesting markers that suggest what might have happened over and above the bludgeoning of his head with a baseball bat.
Casting a critical eye over the crime scene at the brothel, Poe realises that something is amiss, but it will take a while to realise what and who is responsible. Then all hell will break loose, because a vital piece of evidence links to a crime some three years previously when a man was shot in the head at point blank range in the midst of a security vault heist.
Poe and Tilly must chase down the clues and work out what links these murders. In the process they will find themselves immersed in official military secrets, lies and cover-ups that are truly explosive and carry deep political implications.
This case feels quite close to home for Poe, a man whose affinity lies with the working squaddie rather than the top brass. This case involves the military and a tragic event during the Afghanistan war. Poe has to tread a fine line between the politics and the emotional impact of a terrible tragedy that left a bereaved family upset and angered by a wall of silence. It’s a fine piece of writing that feels truthful.
If Poe is to catch a wily and utterly ruthless violent killer, he will need all the tricks at Tilly’s disposal and his own brand of logical deduction to make all the required connections. Knowing who is working with him and who is against him is not a given here and Poe finds himself not knowing who he can trust (apart from Tilly, obvs).
I always like it when I learn things from a book and Craven throws in just the right kind of oddball information that I love to soak up from military language and customs to the incredibly worrying and accurate information about Janus cables– it’s an added bonus to an already superb book.
But it’s Tilly Bradshaw and Washington Poe who really make this series come alive. Mike Craven has a great way with one-liners that serve to underscore the sardonic Poe and the delightfully honest, outspoken and fiercely literal brainbox, Tilly. They are such vivid characters it’s impossible not to be captivated by them and to let them lead you on a merry dance. The welcome return of two other characters and the addition of the spook’s spook, Locke, all make for a fantastic cast of characters you will adore.
Verdict: Another cracking, compulsive and thrilling read from the master of manipulation. Twisty, inventive and utterly unmissable, this is another great addition to the Poe and Tilly series.
M. W. Craven was born in Carlisle but grew up in Newcastle, returning after 31 years to take up a probation officer position in Whitehaven, eventually working his way up to chief officer grade. Sixteen years later he took the plunge, accepted redundancy and became a full-time author. He now has entirely different motivations for trying to get inside the minds of criminals. His first novel featuring Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw, The Puppet Show, was published by Constable to huge acclaim, and it has since won the CWA Gold Dagger Award and been shortlisted for the Amazon Publishing Readers’ Awards: Best Crime Novel, the Goldsboro Glass Bell Award and the Dead Good Reader Awards. M. W. Craven lives in Carlisle with his wife, Joanne. When he isn’t out with his springer spaniel, or talking nonsense in the pub, he can usually be found at punk gigs and writing festivals up and down the country. Photo (c) Julie Winspear