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Flawed but interesting seems a fair description.
on 1 June 2012
Kate Ellis' writing career began with the publication of 'The Merchant's House', the first Wesley Peterson investigation, back in 1998. 'The Cadaver Game' is the sixteenth in the Wesley Peterson series, and in the last five or six years she has also published four novels featuring DI Joe Plantagenet, set in York, and one stand-alone novel, The Devil's Priest, published in 2006. A second stand-alone novel is scheduled for publication next year.
'The Cadaver Game' gets into gear from the outset. Two teenagers are shot dead on page 5; on page 6, the intercut sub-plot set in 1815 gets underway with the promise of more violence, and on page 8 a maggot-infested body is discovered. There is no shortage of action, and it continues until the final solution emerges some 350 pages later. Other reviewers have provided additional details of the plot, so I won't repeat them here.
I can't deny that I enjoyed reading this book but, although there's lots of potential in the plot and and among the characters, not enough of that potential is realised. The plotting is intricate but there are several flaws, at least one of which has serious implications in relation to the final solution. Most readers will have devoured several of the earlier books and will be familiar with the character of Wesley Peterson, but taking this book in isolation the characterisation is pretty two-dimensional; he's tall, black, well-educated, married with a young family and definitely one of the good guys - but that's about all we learn about him. He's a Detective Inspector, working under Detective Chief Inspector Gerry Heffernan - and Heffernan doesn't seem to have any discernable responsibilities, which leaves him free to chat to Wesley about the case and to accompany him on most of his travels. About the only character with whom I feel any sort of empathy is local archaeologist Neil Watson, who was one of Wesleys university coursemates. Though Wesley has forsaken the trowel for the truncheon, their paths cross on a regular basis.
The Peterson novels are set in the South Hams area of Devon - the bulgy bit that protrudes into the English Channel between Exeter and Plymouth - and particularly in the eastern half of that area. The place names are all changed; in the following examples from the present book the name used in the book is in brackets: Dartmouth(Tradmouth), Totnes(Neston), Torbay(Morbay), Kingswear(Queenswear), Kingsbridge(Dukesbridge) - you'll see the pattern. Some readers may enjoy working out the real names from the invented (but related) names used in the book, but I can't see that it adds anything to the narrative; if you don't know the area it means nothing and if you do (and I've spent time in some excellent pubs around Totnes!) it's merely a distraction.
Kate Ellis clearly has the potential to do better than this. She writes pretty good dialogue, is a skilful plotter, and knows how to hold the reader's attention. The use of an intercut historic backstory in her novels is original and certainly a bonus for her readers. Too often, though, her books lack credibility. That's not to say I look for too much realism in a crime novel - real crime isn't exactly entertaining - but credibility is another matter. The reader needs to believe that things just COULD happen as they are portrayed, even if it doesn't seem very likely, so the Peterson-Heffernan working relationship needs to be tidied up, and other incredible occurrences need to be beefed up with better justification. Better editing would help, too.
In short, if you're a fan of the likes of John Harvey and Ian Rankin, or a devotee of P. D. James or Ruth Rendell, this book may not be for you; the pity is that a bit more effort spent on editing could easily make it so. Despite those reservations, it's still a superb book for reading on the beach. I spend much of my time wrestling with legal and technical prose, so for relaxation I enjoy fairly light reading - which, of course, is why I enjoyed this book and will no doubt buy the next title in the series. I just can't shake off the conviction that Kate Ellis is not using her talents to the full.