This is an intelligent police procedural, well plotted and gripping. It is darkly sinister from the first page. The coffins in the cemetery at All Saints Church, King’s Lynn, are being re-located to higher ground because of the risk of flooding. When the coffin of Nora Tilden, former landlady of the Flask Inn, an old whaling pub in the nearby dank and inbred village of South Lynn, is raised, a man’s skeleton is found on top of it. Nora was buried in 1982, killed by being pushed down the stairs by her violent ex-navy husband. The grave also contains the tiny coffin of her baby daughter, who died in 1948.
D.I. Peter Shaw and D.S. George Valentine are put in charge of the case. Shaw and Valentine have a history in the locality. In 1997 a nine-year-old boy was found murdered on a housing estate. The investigation was conducted by Peter Shaw’s late father, who was then DCI, and George Valentine, then DI Valentine. A student named Mosse was charged with the crime, but the case failed because it was believed that the forensic evidence had been tampered with – probably by DCI Shaw. The case ended Peter Shaw’s father’s career and Valentine was demoted to Sergeant. This tragedy has not been forgotten by the force, and Peter Shaw and Valentine know they cannot afford to make any mistakes this time.
The forensic examination of the skeleton on the coffin reveals that he was almost certainly of African descent. Jim Kelly weaves an intricate plot, at the centre of which are the two generations of the family running the Flask and its regular customers. Towards the end of the Second World War Nora Tilden’s sister, Bea, had an affair with a black American soldier who was stationed nearby. Racial prejudice was rife at the time and she was despised by the locals. Eventually she married him and went to live in the States. Her husband died and after a few years she came back to South Lynn, with her son, Patrice. The Flask is now run by Nora’s daughter, Lizzie. Shaw and Valentine are astonished to find that there is a black barman at the Flask, who closely resembles a drawing Shaw has done of the reconstructed face of the skeleton in the grave. Lizzie explains that the barman is her son, fathered by her cousin Patrice, who disappeared from the village at the time of Nora’s death.
The strength of the novel lies in the creation of atmosphere and the vivid depiction of the very large cast of characters. The plot is so complicated that it is easy to lose your way – particularly once Mosse, the probable killer of the child in 1997, and his old associates, all of whom are still living in the village and are regulars at the Flask, reappear. There are connections between the cold case of the murdered boy and what is going on in the present. Only when Shaw begins to find out what really happened on the day of Nora Tilden’s funeral does the truth begin to emerge, but the suspense is maintained right until the end, with a series of revelations. I think a family tree of the licensees of the Flask might have been helpful.
Absorbing – but a lot of concentration required