One of the great joys of writing is getting to play God with the lives of your characters. Some authors can’t bear to let their protagonists suffer, they protect and nurture them, they wrap them in cotton wool. As a result, of course, hundreds of pages fly by without anything of consequence happening. It goes without saying that these books are best avoided.
Other authors understand that you can love your characters and wish them well, but that as God it is your divine duty to gleefully pour a bucket of shit on their heads, on the understanding that they will – with a bit of luck – just about get to the end of the novel intact.
In DI Bob Valentine, Tony Black has created the Unlucky Alf of crime fiction. His protagonist has more problems on his plate than is perhaps fair for anybody to have to suffer, real or imaginary. Having come back from dead after being stabbed in the course of duty, he’s in the firing line of his malicious boss; his marriage to his shopaholic wife is falling apart; his old man has had a stroke; his daughter has got problems at school; and, to cap it all, there’s a killer going about impaling people on very sharp sticks.
I haven’t even mentioned his visions, but the blurb does:
‘It’s a dead man . . . Can’t you see someone’s put a bloody great spike through him?’ The discovery of a dead banker sends shock waves through the sleepy coastal town of Ayr. And it’s up to DI Bob Valentine – recently back on the force after his near-fatal stabbing – to find the killer.
But leads are hard to find and the pressure is on from an anxious Chief Superintendent who is being hounded by the media and still has serious concerns about her DI’s mental health. And as it becomes clear that there’s a serial killer on the loose, Bob Valentine must battle the demons of his post-traumatic stress, an investigation team that’s leaking like a sieve and frightening visions that might just be the key to unlocking the mystery. Valentine is close to breaking point, but can he crack the case before he cracks up?
Artefacts Of The Dead is a curious beast. It’s part procedural, part existential reflection by a man who has been given a second chance at life – and isn’t sure if it’s worth having. It’s fair to say that Valentine doesn’t like what he sees anymore when he stares out of the window. Black is as interested in prodding beneath Valentine’s scar tissue as he is in solving the violent and unsavoury crime. As a result, the central investigation gets sidelined for nearly half the novel – which is a shame because it really grips when it gets going.
But Black’s commitment to the troubled journey of his beleaguered hero is without question. A hugely prolific writer, and an old hand at putting his characters under intolerable strain – he’s the author the Gus Dury thrillers – we could all learn a thing or two from him on how to crank up the pressure to eleven on our beloved characters.
Many thanks to Black And White Publishing for the review copy of Artefacts Of The Dead, which is out now in paperback and on ebook. Later in the week Tony Black will be giving us The Intel on Artefacts Of The Dead – and, of course, about his writing regime.