Most of you will know how I enjoy a bit of Golden Age crime – perfect for tired brain days and lazy weekends. I read far less modern crime – most of it is just too grim. However, I was assured by other reviews that Death in Profile – the first of Guy Fraser Sampson’s Hampstead Murder series – is not like those novels. Although set in the modern world the novel sticks to the tradition of those Golden Age mysteries which are still so loved by readers.
In this compulsively readable mystery the author not only adheres to the traditions of the Golden Age – he pays brilliant homage to them – particularly to the characters made famous by Dorothy L Sayers.
Yet this is the world of a modern police unit, young senior officers, fast tracked following psychology degrees, older traditional coppers not cutting the mustard. Expectations are high, results are needed, progress needs to be seen to be being made. There are no country house gatherings, steam trains or late night telegrams – this is London in the 21st century.
In the genteel London suburb of Hampstead, a series of murders have remained unsolved for a year and a half, as a fifth victim is discovered by Boyo a homeless crack addict’s dog.
“Boyo was a border collie cross, which was how he had come by his name. The crackhead who had given him to his owner, Ben, as a puppy had been convinced that Boyo was a proper noun much in evidence among Welshmen, rather than an antiquated form of address. Not that Boyo himself was particularly worried one way or another, for two reasons. First, he was on the whole preoccupied with satisfying his pressing need to find something to eat. Second, as a dog he was incapable of abstract conceptual thought.”
Kathy Barker, a local doctor’s wife is the victim, she had left her home the previous evening following a row. Thankfully for readers like me – the unpleasant details are not dwelt upon, the focus instead is largely on the police team investigating, and the trail of evidence. Senior investigating officer – Chief Inspector Tom Allen is removed from the case – to his fury – and young Detective Superintendent Simon Collison is asked to head up the team. Allen vows to continue to investigate, but his former colleagues are barred from speaking to anyone about the case. Working closely with Collison are Detective Inspector Bob Metcalfe D C Priya Desai and Karen Willis, three members of a larger team who have all been working together for eighteen months with frustratingly little result.
Collison sighed. “You don’t read much, do you, Andrew?”
“You mean books? No, not really. Who does these days?”
“So how many books do you think you read every year? I’m asking just out of interest, you understand.”
“Well, I take one on holiday with me, and say two or three others.”
“I see,” Collison said thoughtfully as he paid the bill. “So how do you learn things, then?”
“Isn’t that what the internet’s for, sir? Anytime you want to know something, you just look it up.”
“But doesn’t that presuppose,” Collison replied as they started strolling back down the hill towards the police station, “that you know what it is that you’re looking for in the first place?”
“How do you mean, sir?”
“Well, clearly the internet is a fantastic information source but reading is different. With books you learn things, random things, whatever the author might be talking to you about, and you sort of soak them up like a sponge over the years. They are stored away in some dim recess of the unconscious mind until one day some equally random stimulus sparks a connection, and you find that you’ve combined different items of memory and perception into a completely new insight.”
DC Karen Willis’s partner Peter Collins – a psychologist and criminology tutor is approached to provide a profile of the serial killer. Peter Collins is something of an eccentric, with his appearance and often his behaviour harking back to another time – the period of his favourite mystery novels. Peter is a huge fan of Golden Age fiction – Lord Peter Wimsey a particular inspiration. Peter’s mind is a little fragile, and at times of extreme stress Peter retreats to the world of Dorothy L Sayers. Sampson shows superb knowledge and affection for Sayers work. I don’t want to say too much and spoil it for future readers – but there is an entertaining section which does pay homage to those characters that Sayers readers love.
The profile that Peter comes up with – sends the team off in another direction, and they soon have someone in their sights. Assumptions can be dangerous however, and Peter’s plea for caution falls on deaf ears as the team get excited about possible breakthroughs. Very little in life is that easy however – and the team are brought up short when they make a big mistake. As if professional errors are not enough – it seems as if someone on the team are giving details of the investigation to the press – and the top brass are none too impressed.
The police procedural, forensic and legal elements of a serial killer case are dealt with very realistically – it seemed to me – and yet these details are not allowed to get in the way of a darn good story, which is really well plotted. The various police officers, including their private lives and explored well, the characters’ people we come to care about quickly. These officers have laptops, mobile phones – are in every way, thoroughly modern professional members of the police service – yet like their golden age colleagues, don’t use foul language, and treat everyone – including one another with the utmost respect. D C Willis seemed to be the object of every male’s desire – and the appearance of her legs were dwelt upon more than I felt necessary – but that’s a minor irritation. I would love to read about all these characters again – as they investigate another case. I particularly love Peter – and I also want to know what happens to grumpy Tom Allen next.
I flew through this book – it’s so engaging and a real page turner – I for one really hope there are some more of this series soon.