The opening scene of Valerie Laws's crime novel The Operator is one of the most unpleasant that I have ever read. A surgeon is examining a patient -- but his expertise is used to hurt and not to heal. It's brilliant but, as a reader, I couldn't have stood too much more of such subtle sadism. Valerie Laws is a powerful writer with a high level of anatomical knowledge (I would recommend her poems about dissection, medical specimens and the brain in the collection All That Lives) but she also has a quickness and a sense of humour that prevents her from serving up an undiluted horror novel. The Operator is the second in her series of Bruce and Bennett investigations featuring the antagonistic, sexually attracted Erica Bruce (homeopath, journalist, fitness freak, recovered anorexic) and the harrassed, competent, good-looking police officer, Will Bennett. They met in The Rotting Spot, a murder mystery set on the coast in the North East of England, an area Laws knows well and evidently loves. The swimming scene is unforgettable.
Bruce and Bennett have had an affair but (currently) it is over. In The Operator the spotlight is on Erica rather than Will. Her involvement in the crime is accidental (she finds the body) but being an awkward, passionate, stubborn character, the more she is advised to leave detection to the professionals, the less inclined she is to do so. Erica is a unique and fascinating creation. I was uncertain about her in The Rotting Spot but in The Operator I have succumbed. I think she'll continue to grow so, much as I like her current squeeze, I hope there's a third novel on the way and that detective Bennett might be given another chance.