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.
Introduction to the eponymous horror is delayed by a Prologue. Four years ago the jury is assembling on the last day of the trial of “The Cremation Killer” who burned his victims alive. At the penultimate moment he is acquitted in view of false evidence that challenges the integrity of the leading prosecution witness: “Wolf” Fawkes. Wolf is a DI characterised by supreme confidence in his own judgement and uncontrollable fits of rage. The first ensures his conviction that the law is releasing a serial killer, the second that he should attack the man savagely in court. As a consequence he is demoted, and incarcerated in a secure mental hospital with “personality disorders” while the freed killer goes on to murder and burn a schoolgirl.
Four years later, Wolf, now a sergeant, disillusioned, broken except for his basic expertise, is called to a crime scene in an apartment block opposite his own squalid flat. There something is suspended from a beam: not a dismembered body, not one corpse but body parts sewn together to form a whole which the media promptly nickname The Ragdoll.
The police try to keep a lid on the grisly details but Wolf’s former wife, Andrea, an ambitious but careless TV reporter, is sent photographs of the abomination, along with a list of living people and the dates when the sender proposes to kill them. The first name is the mayor’s; the last, that of Wolf. Andrea puts everything on air and the result is pandemonium: among the police, the press and the public.
The mayor dies horribly. The methods used for these subsequent murders and the agonies involved are the sensations of this novel; in comparison the nastiness of the ragdoll is no more than titillation. And then there are the jokes and quips: soundbites masquerading as gallows humour. But gallows humour must be hilarious to counter a weight of horror. Barbecuing children and human roadkill crosses a line. There is some slight relief in the faintly amusing sexual friction between two women: Wolf’s former wife who loves him and wants him back and Emily, his police colleague and partner, a fierce alcoholic with a cat.
The investigations are plural and interesting: tracing the “owners” of the parts of the human jigsaw; protecting, and failing, the people on the killer’s hit-list. But too much happens and questions are posed and never answered. What happened to the rest of each mutilated body? What was the purpose in sewing the parts together other than to form a hook for the publicists? Not surprising that the TV rights were sold before publication.