Friday, March 30, 2018

Review of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham (Orion, 2015)

Fiona Griffiths did not join CID to investigate minor payroll frauds. She wants something more juicy, like a murder, or possibly a manslaughter. She’d like to pass the task on, but then she discovers the body of a woman starved to death. Shortly after, the man who set up the fraud is found murdered. But the fraud is still being committed and it’s more extensive and lucrative than initially thought. Fiona wants justice for the starved woman and she’s prepared to go undercover to gain vital evidence. After being trained in the basics of payroll accountancy and completing the toughest course in Britain’s police force, she starts work for an insurance company, taking the persona of a victim of domestic abuse seeking to get her life back on track. The criminal gang are looking for a vulnerable victim and Fiona is perfect. But as she’s drawn into their world she realises that they are more organized and ruthless than she’d anticipated. And moreover, the more she performs as her new persona, the more her identity fractures. It’s not just a case of whether she’ll survive but, if she does, which of her personas survives with her.

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is the third book in the series about a young police officer who suffers from Cotard’s Syndrome. While highly competent and driven, Fiona lives almost outside herself and has trouble identifying emotions or how people expect her to behaviour, constantly second-guessing what she should do or say in any situation. This gives her a vulnerability, yet at the same time she pushes boundaries and is not easily managed. She’s a wonderful literary creation, an engaging, complex, multidimensional, and often surprising character. In this outing, she trains to go undercover and then penetrates a sophisticated, careful and ruthless criminal gang who are perpetrating an enormous accounting fraud against several companies. The undercover work is challenging and places her fragile identity under pressure. The plotting is excellent, with Bingham spinning a multi-layered tale that also twists and turns and creates plenty of tension. The hook is a crime that is relatively unusual in crime fiction and is ingenious in its conception and implementation. The police procedural elements are very nicely done – rather than the formulaic boss and sidekick, Bingham provides the full panoply of units, forces, personalities, roles, procedures, and politics that operate during a major investigation. The undercover training and deployment instinctively feels realistic. Indeed, just about the whole book feels steeped in realism, though Fiona’s family life, with her father formerly being a major crime lord, has the feel of a plot device, and the denouement is also somewhat souped-up to be a dramatic finale. Nonetheless, this is a superb read and I’ve a keen sense of anticipation for reading the next instalment.

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