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.
This one starts with a bang and keeps going. From an explosive scene in steamy Hong Kong half a century ago the narrative leaps to a fog-shrouded cemetery where a private investigator is summoned from her mother’s funeral to a Missing Persons case in London’s Docklands.
Catherine Berlin is 58: touchy and unpredictable, carrying baggage, physical and emotional, surviving on codeine and malt whisky, spiked with heroin when she can get it. Trailing her but no stooge is DC Bryant, another loner: gruff, old school, with a risible turn of phrase: “miscreant”, “catamite”: a homophobe deeply resentful of Berlin’s presence which he has been ordered to accept for reasons that are clear but, in his book, toxic.
A witness has reported a street fight in the small hours; there is much blood, the victim has disappeared but his attacker caught and held by the police. What renders this fracas remarkable is that the blows were struck by a public schoolboy and the client engaging Berlin to find his victim, alive or dead, is the 9th Earl of Haileybury: philanthropist, aesthete, and trustee of the boy’s school. Bryant takes ghoulish relish in indicating to Berlin that the Earl owns and occupies a warehouse close to the scene of the crime.
But what lifts this situation out of the ruck of current media witch hunts is that this figure of the establishment is the descendant of the man who at the time of the Opium Wars looted the Summer Palace in Beijing. Called the Haileybury Bequest priceless treasures currently not on loan to museums and galleries are now held by the Earl in his warehouse. And the People’s Republic of China wants them back. Diplomatic negotiations have rumbled on for decades with no effect but now a window of opportunity opens and a paranoid Earl finds himself fighting not only to protect his young lover but to hang on to his albeit stolen goods. Chinese agents, headed by the formidable Lee Wang Yang don’t stop at blackmail in order to recover their country’s property. Meanwhile the government is as determined to hold on to the loot as it is to avoid a diplomatic incident. Berlin and Bryant, most of the time at odds with each other and always prickly, are caught in the cross fire. Dirty tricks are the norm. Intimidation and fear will always shadow illicit sex but in House of Bones there are refinements of paedophilia which one can only hope do not exist in the real world.
An exciting novel complete with short, action-filled chapters from different angles advance the story without divulging the ultimate horror. The dialogue is strong and idiomatic, going off the rails a bit towards the end, and when there are two people present it’s obvious who’s speaking so “he/she said” become superfluous at every utterance. Unfortunately the better the book, the more noticeable the flaw, and this novel is definitely a page-turner.