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.
At first glance this novel suggests horror comic rather than crime novel, seeming to feature two monsters who will surely be on opposite sides, slogging it out with bizarre weapons. Juvenile? Not so. The initial victims are only too human and, given that they are porno merchants, surprisingly sympathetic. Despite their appalling termination (on page 5) one reads on, nauseated but hooked.
If that first killer is alien in his armour and golden helmet, the other appears to be a nondescript little chap. Unknown outside the underworld until recently when a prostitute tipped off the police, he is John Sagan, a torturer-for-hire who owns a caravan (“the Pain Box”) equipped with specialised instruments, and he operates anywhere if the price is right. Currently he is in London where the Serial Crimes Unit has him under surveillance. They are spearheaded by an undercover cop: DS Mark “Heck” Heckenburg, an enigmatic character with a past; neither personality nor background of much moment here; this book is all action.
The target flat is raided, communication fails, Sagan shoots Heck’s colleague and escapes. This is when the two major forces collide – or combine (an element of mystery about that) for Sagan comes north: to the same city where the other killer is at work: the one the media has dubbed The Incinerator. He has an arsenal of weapons but favours a flame thrower. His first victims ran a sex-shop; when Sagan comes north his immediate targets are drug dealers, tortured to death in the Pain Box. Do these crimes demonstrate a new and extreme form of vigilantism? But then a silly wannabe celebrity is torched along with her driver, an Asian cabbie: innocents both, at least not deserving to be roasted, (the style is infectious, fiery agonies are graphically described and advisably skipped).
Since Sagan was their case the Serial Crimes Unit have followed him north to liaise with the locals, and all, including Heck - who is returning to his home town - all drawn into the local nightmare of The Incinerator and the dawning awareness that the two murderers are neither monsters nor vigilantes but tools. This city, once prosperous, is floundering in the grip of a crime wave. Gang warfare is threatened between an old firm under an established godfather, and a splinter group led by a vicious but charismatic young tearaway. Sagan, employed by the godfather, tips the balance but The Incinerator is a great leveller. And there are the Russians: fearsome jokers in the pack, the Tartarstans from St Petersburg who know no rules. The dilemma facing the cops is a choice between allowing the villains to destroy each other (with all the collateral damage to the citizens) or to find some way to save the city from anarchy.
This is a man’s book. There is a little (unrequited) sex and a lot of fighting. Chases, hunts, even the fights, go on for ever. The style is macho, facetious: police-speak. Television will love it although constrained to cut the nastier bits despite any obligatory health warning.