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.
A student, Nicholas Carr, disappears on the way home from his eighteenth birthday bash. Subsequently three of his fingers are found in a Manchester wood but when no body comes to light the case is put on hold by the police. The desperate parents have no alternative but to turn to a private investigator.
Andrew Hunter is accident-prone. His assistant, Jenny, is a child-woman of acute perceptions and psychopathic tendencies, fearless but oddly prudent, leaving the rough work to her boss, which is when he runs into trouble. Having just tracked down an errant husband to a brothel he has made an enemy not only of the father but of the son who is at the age that youths like setting things on fire.
Still smarting from the arsonist Hunter becomes embroiled in the new case: hired to find Nicholas Carr, alive or dead. The immediate suspects (after the usual ones of kin) are the boy’s university cronies and his girl friend: typical sleaze merchants living communally, attended by a precocious mother-figure and the girl friend, a goth. Ostensibly they are stock characters in a stock plot in a red-brick uni. until the occult obtrudes with all the trappings of wizards and witches, numerology, maiming, and hints of human sacrifices, present and past. Inevitably as Hunter’s net contracts, neatly tightened by the intrepid Jenny, a suspect who holds a key to the mystery dies. Danger looms for the detectives, the pace quickens towards a wicked climax, and the concupiscent husband – he of the brothels and dysfunctional family – comes rampaging onto the scene.
Wilkinson is a journalist and his style lurches wildly between The Sun and The Times. The novel teems with jokes but comic crime should be subtle or hilarious. Facetious doesn’t work in this context. For all that it will go down well in the circles for which it’s aimed. The severed fingers were a nice touch.