MULTI-MEDIA George Sandifer-Smith

NWR Issue r15

Review of Ash and Bones by Mike Thomas

George Sandifer-Smith reviews 'Ash and Bones', a crime novel by Mike Thomas, published by Zaffre. New Welsh Review's multi-media programme is sponsored by Aberystwyth University. Directed & edited by Jordan Blower, produced by Elinor Johnson.

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George Sandifer-Smith reviews 'Ash and Bones' by Mike Thomas from New Welsh Review on Vimeo.



Mike Thomas’ crime novel, Ash and Bones, is one of those interesting stories about a profession that is written by someone involved in that profession. I read the book before I looked up the author, and was not surprised to see that Thomas is a serving police officer. Because this is one of the greatest strengths of Ash and Bones – that it is a full, in-depth and comprehensive look at the process of police work.

The reader is shown the sheer amount of hard work and problems that go with the profession, including both issues of bureaucracy and working relationships. DC MacReady, the protagonist, immediately has to deal with the unhelpful colleague he is paired with on his first day, Harrison. Described as “comical in his sandals and bright white socks, a fifty-something Valleys couldn’t-give-a-fuck who stank of fag ash and fried food”, the author returns to this character throughout for black comic relief – Harrison is constantly eating and making it clear that he’d rather be anywhere other than with MacReady looking into their case.

This dark humour lifts some of the intensity of this often cynical and brutal novel (the final confrontation between the murderer and the police is particularly grisly). Even DC MacReady’s personal life is shown to be fraught with problems, with him having intimacy issues with his wife and a brother he’s constantly pulling out of trouble. The sections where we see him at home never encroach too much on the character’s detective work, but we are never left feeling that the book would be any more engaging without them. Indeed, not having the character as a lone maverick cop adds a great deal to the proceedings. As recent TV characters like the re-imagined Sherlock Holmes or John Luther have shown, the detective character can be every bit as interesting a study as the case they are investigating.

I used the term ‘maverick cop’ earlier. Many of literature’s detectives, whether private agents or working officially for the law, are like MacReady, who runs after a potentially armed suspect against his Inspector’s orders or interviews people he’s been told to stay away from by his superiors. It can be argued that readers prefer this protagonist as it allows the story to stray from the ‘rules’ and ‘reality’ of a real-life police case.

Yet Thomas also intelligently parodies this audience expectation that the maverick cop will save the day with the start of his story’s central case. We are shown the perspective of Bob Garratt, a police officer and the first victim to trigger the investigation – he is killed because he rushes in without proper back-up, living up to the expectations of the maverick cop character in detective fiction. Thomas gives the reader what they expect, before immediately undermining it to show us that his story is set in a grim reality where any of the lead characters can be killed off suddenly and violently. In Ash and Bones, no character is safe, save perhaps MacReady who is the central protagonist in the Cardiff-set, larger section of the narrative.

This brings me to the secondary narrative in the novel, which I think is somewhat less successful in its integration with the main detective plot. Throughout MacReady’s detective work, the story is interrupted with various sections relaying the various incidents and occurrences within a larger criminal operation leading to the murderer and their motivations. The problem with this section, as well written and engaging as it is, is that, for the most part, it does not connect with the detective strand of Ash and Bones. The reader is taken out of a story where they have grown familiar and comfortable with the lead character, and seemingly dropped into another story entirely, with only the promise that it will all eventually tie together binding it to MacReady and the Cardiff police department’s investigation.

That’s not to say that it isn’t well thought-out and interesting in its own right, just that the main part of the narrative perhaps takes too long to connect up with it, resulting in the eventual explanation of the murders and motivations seeming to appear very suddenly and a little confusingly. In fact, the book could have been a little longer to tie the various plot threads together a little more slowly and neatly.

With that said, the pace of Ash and Bones kept very well throughout, with none of it – even a drunken night out with MacReady and his frustrated colleagues – feeling like it was there for no narrative purpose. The author also really captured a great sense of place with his depiction of Cardiff, from the University Hospital of Wales (as Thomas writes, “the Heath to the locals”) to Caroline Street’s myriad of chip shops, all of the locations rang authentically, and contrasted with the descriptions of more exotic places in the secondary narrative.

Ash and Bones is certainly worth any reader’s time if they have an interest in modern, realistic crime fiction with a fast pace and accuracy regarding the police force. MacReady makes for a likeable lead character and it would be interesting to see him return in a future novel from Mike Thomas.

       


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