Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
Can souls die or does the title refer to living people without a conscience? In this novel we have a spectrum of affliction from autism to sadism.
The time is now: over sixty years since World War II when Denmark was occupied by Germans, people forced into slave labour, others collaborating. On the sea bed of the Kattegat Kir, a female Army diver, finds a box of bones, possibly dating from that old war, the vertebrae showing signs that the victim was garrotted. This involved a collar which, when tightened by a clamp, drove an iron spike into the spine.
Kir, experienced and feisty, gets all the dirty jobs and when a novice goes missing from her nunnery, she finds the body in a moat. Shortly afterwards, diving to a foundered fishing boat, she discovers a third corpse in the wheelhouse when the boat carried a crew of two. Both nun and stowaway had been garrotted. Enter the police and Mark, Kir’s one-time friend, who sets about trying to link the modern murders and the ancient bones.
The third player in this drama is Egholm’s series character, Peter Boutrup, ex-jailbird, carpenter, loner, with an Alsatian inherited from his dead lover. He has fallen foul of a violent biker gang who, coming to attack him one night in his isolated cottage, suffer severe casualties from a chap who is familiar with guns and explosives. Retreating wounded the gang reappear throughout the story dealing drugs, employing extortion and blackmail, inflicting punishment by means of maiming and ultimately, death. But although obvious suspects for the modern crimes their motivation is a mystery as is any link with the old bones and the distant war. Moreover the bikers’ methods are crude, more likely suspects are a group of women who are intelligent but still devoid of obvious motive although there is some trace of a connection, and that has to do with age.
The dead novice had teenage friends. After her body was found they disappeared. The mother of one pleads with Boutrup to find her son. He agrees reluctantly but when his friend is severely injured in mistake for himself, his attitude hardens. The boy he searches for has gone to ground but the Alsatian finds another youth buried in sand dunes.
A situation, already complex, is further complicated by the introduction of a mink farm where a group of well-intentioned environmentalists release hundreds of animals and, back in town, visit stores to spray furs with paint. Then there was the MMR vaccine of a few years ago: the jab that protected children against measles but which informed mothers boycotted on the grounds that it was linked to autism. The same women are now in middle age and some are mothers of the missing teenagers. Hence a link.
The different investigators, striving for method, blunder along, often at odds with each other: the cops, headed by the caustic Anna, fronted by impotent Mark, in remission from cancer, torn with jealousy of Kir’s brawny diving partner; Boutrup the embittered loner: all trying to make sense out of the lethal chaos that confronts them.
Eventually stuff starts to coalesce, culminating in satisfactory bloodbaths where the only clean fighter is the Alsatian who goes for the throat. The grand climax involves the ubiquitous garrotte now coupled with a motion-activated bomb.
Too much happening, too many people. There are enough meaty themes to furnish several books. Dead Souls demonstrates a fertile imagination but it’s an object lesson in the dangers of an embarrass de richesses.