Sunday, 11 September 2016

Ash and Bones by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas, a former Cardiff police officer turned author, first came to my attention with his novel A Pocket Notebook, a dark, funny tale of a firearms officer going off the rails. Next up was his hugely enjoyable Ugly Bus, literally one of the best books I have read, and one of the few to feature as its protagonists’ members of the TSG. The Territorial Support Group is the nearest UK police forces come to having a riot squad, and as such when it does appear in fiction it’s usually as knuckle dragging simpletons. Both of these books are well worth a read, Ugly Bus in particular deserving a recommendation. It is with more than a little excitement that I heard recently that Ugly Bus has been picked up by the BBC for dramatisation and I for one will be glued to my TV when it airs.

But what do after penning two original tales? How often can one come up with something unique? For his third book, Mike Thomas has chosen to tread the safer ground of the police procedural. This choice is understandable as it allows him to develop a small group of characters, the protagonist and a support cast if you will, and flesh them out over a series of novels. It also allows him to tell a more traditional crime story than he has so far. Of course this is not without risk. Until now Thomas’s has been an original voice, one that stood out from the mass of other crime writers with their serried ranks of police detectives and serial killers. Might he sink into cliché and pastiche?

Luckily for his fans Thomas delivers. Ash and Bones is a superior police procedural to much of the opposition. Quite simply it’s a better story. First let’s look at the plot. A squad of police raid a flat looking for low-level criminal. Unfortunately, someone else is there and one of their number is gunned down and killed. The occupant of the flat, the criminal they were after, is also shot and ends up in a coma. Enter DC Will McReady and his colleagues in the CID. It’s Will’s first day and he’s frustrated to have a bit part in the murder investigation, shunted onto other cases with a colleague, Sergeant Charlie Becks.

Of course Will, who has various problems at home, isn’t willing to take this and is determined to insert himself into the centre of the action. This might sound predictable, the cop with the dysfunctional personal life playing maverick, but Thomas is too smart a writer to play that trick. While it’s true that Will manages to bend the rules and uncover leads that others have risked it’s not without cost. There are consequences to his lone ranger antics and his superiors first bollock him and later punish him for doing so. Also his actions have real negative effects and at one point an officer alongside him gets seriously hurt in direct consequence of him disobeying orders. Real police work is teamwork and while the author gives his protagonist leeway to pull the narrative along, this is never forgotten in this tale.

The other thing I liked is he avoids what I consider the lazy device of the serial killer. In my opinion far too many crime writers have a serial killer in their novels. And not just a serial killer, one who kills in outlandish and byzantine ways. As well as being cheesy and completely unrealistic, I’ve always found these tales - the writers of whom seem to enjoy just a little too much penning scenes of young women being tortured and abused - sensationalist and salacious. Thomas forges a different path. His tale revolves around some nasty criminals but they’re not the lazy creations of most writers. And while there is violence in this book, descriptions of bodies which have been tortured and butchered, it’s never titillating.

In fact, the author has managed that rare beast: a crime novel that is both hugely enjoyable whilst also trying to say something. The reader feels like they get an insight into the coal face of policing in modern British city, the nature of organised crime, the jaded cynicism of some police officers whilst others (in this case Will and Sergeant Becks) try to keep hold of their humanity.

In conclusion this is a really good read and an impressive start to a new series. On Amazon it’s listed as Ash & Bones (Will McReady 1) so I guess we will revisit Will and Co in the future. I hope it’s soon and I will be reading.

5 stars  

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