Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review of Last Rights by Barbara Nadel (Headline, 2005)

1940 in London at the height of the blitz, undertaker and First World War veteran Francis Hancock’s nerves are in shreds.  Unable to descend into the shelters for fear of being buried alive, he wanders the streets in a dazed madness as the bombs fall all around him.  One night he comes across a man who claims to have been stabbed before staggering off.  Two days later, the man turns up in Hancock’s funeral parlour.  The police think he died from shock caused by a bomb blast, but Hancock discovers a small pinprick on his chest which he believes was created by a hat-pin.  Initially, the police are not interested, but after a post-mortem examination they arrest his wife, disbelieving her alibi and aware that she has a chequered history and possible 'bad blood', her mother having murdered her step-father with a hat-pin through the heart.  Hancock is not convinced of the woman’s guilt and having taken in her teenage daughter sets about trying to contact her estranged sisters and to discover who did kill the man.

Last Rights is a kind of a hard-edged cozy: undertaker, Francis Hancock, turns amateur detective, investigating a murder when the police do not at first seem interested, continuing when he feels that they have arrested the wrong person.  The edge is provided by the blitz, working class conditions, prostitution and the black market, and some unsavoury characters.  The story unfolds at a reasonable clip and Nadel’s style is quite engaging.  There is some nice contextualisation with respect to the blitz and the Jewish community in London, the sense of place is quite strong, and the characterisation and familial relations are well realised.  Where the book suffers is with respect to the plot.  The premise is interesting but the execution is weak and contrived at times and the killer is somewhat obvious from a long way out.  There were a number of elements of the story that I just simply did not believe, not least the actions of the police, which made little sense.  Overall, the makings of a good series, but this opening story was undermined by an improbable plot.

3 stars

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