Tag Archives: Devon

Never Coming Back by Tim Weaver

You don’t hear much about whole families going missing like that. Like … not together, and definitely not down in south Devon. That place is so safe. It’s like a theme park.”

I decided to read Tim Weaver’s novel, Never Coming Back, without knowing that it is number 4 in a series (Chasing the Dead, Dead Tracks, Vanished). Never Coming Back is this British author’s American debut, and for reasons that I don’t understand, the 4th in the David Raker series is the first to see the U.S market. Actually I’m really glad that I didn’t know about the other three novels, as I wouldn’t have picked up number 4, and that would have been a mistake.

Yes, there’s a backstory to the book, to David Raker’s past life and exactly why he has chosen to be a PI who specializes in missing persons cases. That back story is covered here–covered very well, I’ll add, so crime writers could do themselves a favour and read this to see how the author plays catch-up for those readers who’ve missed earlier books or need a reminder. The back story is always a problem in a series. How much do you include? How much repeat ground do you cover? Reading Never Coming Back made me want to read the 3 backlist novels, but I never felt confused about the plot or characters.

never coming backNever Coming Back finds David Raker in Devon, in the house he inherited from his parents, recuperating from savage wounds and an abandoned relationship. He’s not alone as he shares his house in an uneasy cohabitation arrangement with former Met copper Healy, freshly fired from the force. Raker acknowledges that he has “the same kind of ghosts as Healy,” but that Healy, who’s floundering around “full of anger and resentment and bitterness,” isn’t sure what to do with the rest of his life. A body washes up on the shore and amidst the fallout, Healy decides policing is what he does best, and Raker is contacted by Emily, an old girlfriend, for help locating her sister, brother-in-law and their two children who vanished without trace several months previously. How can four people vanish without a trace? There were a few reported sightings, but the case became cold fast. Perhaps even too fast…

Here’s Emily describing the family’s mysterious disappearance, and the house as she found it, “like a museum,” a “snapshot of time.”

“Their cars were still on the drive, the lights were on in the house, so I rang the doorbell, five, six, seven times.”

A pause.

 […]

“I walked through to the kitchen and the dinner was still cooking.”

“It had just been left like that?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “I remember it vividly. The potatoes were still cooking even though there was no water left in the pan. The pork steaks were burned to a crisp. Vegetables were half prepared, just left on the chopping board. It was like the four of them had downed tools and walked out of the house. There was nothing out of place.”

She turned her coffee mug, lost in thought for a moment. “In fact, the opposite really. Everything was in place. Even the table was set: cutlery laid out, drinks prepared.”

“Did it look like they’d left in a hurry?”

She shook her head, but in her eyes I saw a flicker of hesitation as if she’d remembered something but wasn’t sure whether it was even worth bringing up.

“Emily?”

“The milk,” she said.

“Milk?”

“The fridge had been left ajar. This big four-pinter was lying on the floor, and all the milk had poured out of it, across the linoleum, but that was it.”

The novel goes back and forth in time with the back story concerning the disappearance and the present with Raker investigating the cold case. There’s a little awkwardness to this at first, but this disappears as the plot swings forward. On the down side, there were a couple of clues …  the noise of inconsistency, that Raker should have investigated but didn’t. These things, because they were neglected or failed to sound alarm bells, allowed the plot to move forward in a specific direction, so I’d fault the novel there. Now either Raker needs to go back to PI school or I’ve been reading too many crime novels. Take your pick.

But… those complaints aside, Never Coming Back is a riveting story. I read the book in two sittings and deeply resented any interruptions. In spite of its minor faults, this is a moody, dark, atmospheric novel, packed with incredibly suspenseful, descriptive scenes.  Suspense wrapped with dread kept me turning the pages. The author shows terrific skill in building scenes through description: a deserted country house, the steely cold secrets of the indifferent ocean, and the eerie remains of Miln Cross, a coastal village swept into the sea –we know that bad things happened in these places, and there’s the feeling that we are not just reading safely at home–instead we accompany Raker to these places where the suspense, violence and sense of impending doom are tangible. Noise and silence play important roles in this book, and while those two elements are literal, they are also figurative: the noise of clues in an otherwise ordinary domestic scene and the silence of the missing:

I ignored him, ignored the sound of the water stirring on the lake, something gliding across its glassy surface. The rain had eased off, but there was the whistle of a soft breeze, like air traveling through the neck of a bottle. And behind it all was the sea, its noise smothered by the whispering reeds

And another evocative passage:

As I got to the first of the houses, the whine of the wind seemed to fade away into a gentle whisper, a strange disconcerting sound like voices–deep within the roots of the buildings–talking to one another. There was a sudden stillness to the village, its street protected from the breeze coming in off the water, even from the sound of the sea itself: there was no roar from the waves anymore, just a soft slosh as they grabbed and shoved at the plateau the village rose out from. When I paused for a moment at the open window of the first building, it hit home. Miln Cross was a graveyard, its hushed silence the same as every place I’d ever been where people had been taken before they were ready. In those places there was always a residue, a feeling that echoed through it.

Review copy

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King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher

Last year, one of my favourite reads: The Northern Clemency, came from the mind of British author, Philip Hensher, so naturally I was delighted by the news that he’d written another book. While The Northern Clemency, as the title suggests, is set in the north of England and spans several decades in the lives of various characters, King of the Badgers, yet another marvellous novel from Hensher, is set in Devon.  

Now before you start thinking ‘Devon, how quaint’ and memories of picturesque coves, pretty postcards, donkeys and cobbled streets start bouncing in your brain… STOP! Think again. This is a Hensher novel, and that means a study of the pettiness and quirks of human nature, a dissection of human relationship fraught with barbed humour. I loved every page of it. I read one blurb which compared King of the Badgers to Thackeray; another offered a comparison to Eliot. For this reader, King of The Badgers is a 21st century Trollope. Those who’ve read Trollope’s Barchester Towers will remember that the drama begins when the position of Bishop becomes vacant. This sparks a fallout of petty rivalry and politics as the claws appear and various people vie for the job. In a similar fashion, Hensher also puts his characters in a social petri dish and watches the action, but in King of the Badgers, the action is initiated by the disappearance of China, an eight-year old girl.

King of the Badgers is set in the small fictional Devon town of Hanmouth. To visitors, Hanmouth is an incredibly picturesque town set on the Hain estuary. Hanmouth seems to offer the sort of idyllic quaint life that no longer exists elsewhere in Britain, and the local shops reflect an almost-Disney-like facade of a bygone world. There are “three historic pubs,” one of the few butcher shops left in Britain, “knick-knack shops, “amateur jewellers making a go if it,” an  “Oriental emporium,” a dozen antique shops, a junk market, a fishmongers, a used book shop, and a “specialist cheese shop” which boasts such delicacies as “lesbian bleu d’ Auvergne.”  Hanmouth may sound the ideal place to live– indeed it does attract newcomers, disparagingly called “Grockles” by the locals, but as the novel plays out, Hanmouth, a veritable Peyton Place of over-mortgaged homes and nasty, snobby people, is revealed to be a seething hotbed of gossip, rabid class divisions, adultery, dogging dates, orgies, and relentless social preening.

One of Hanmouth’s leaders of society is university lecturer, Miranda–a powerhouse of a woman whose innate snobbery hides behind her “post colonial” theories and the “collecting box for an African cause” located prominently near the front door. Miranda, who specializes in Regency woman poets, leads and dominates the local book group, and directs the Hanmouth Players in productions of such atrocities as The Bacchae or Woyzeck:

She was aware of the dangers to a woman of her size and age of flowing red and purple velvet, of ethnic beads  and the worst that Hampstead Bazaar could do. She would not, like most of Hanmouth’s women, be inspired by Dame Judi Dench on an Oscar night, and she dressed , as far as possible, in the black and white lines and corners of the fat wife of a Weimar architect.

Just who you are in Hanmouth is dictated by your address, and the streets are sharply delineated by geography. With just four main streets, the most expensive homes are located at the town centre and afford  “at its most expensive, unfettered views of the estuary and the hills beyond, crested with a remote and ducal folly-tower.”  The highly desirable Dutch-gable houses are the homes of the nouveaux riches, while the second street harbours the throughly affluent, solid and conservative middle-class. The third street is the niche for the local “bohemians,” and things go downhill from there until you hit one of the seedier suburbs that are not “Hanmouth proper.” This is the section for the riff-raff, and it’s not considered part of Hanmouth at all–a handy division as it turns out. Nothing much happens in Hanmouth–well at least nothing much appears to happen in Hanmouth until the small town makes the headlines with the disappearance of China, the daughter of slatternly hairdresser, Heidi O’Connor, a resident of one of Hanmouth’s scummier suburbs. China, left at home with her siblings, slipped down to the shops and never returned:

“In any case,” Heidi said to the police later, quite calmly, “I knew China hadn’t gone to visit her friends for one straight and simple reason. She doesn’t have any friends. She’s not been a popular girl, ever. They bully her, I expect, because they say she’s fat and she smells. I don’t think she smells, but at that age, it’s always some reason they’ve got to pick on her, isn’t it? I knew she hadn’t gone to visit a friend. To tell the truth, I thought at first, China, she’s playing some trick on her brother and sister. I’ll tan her hide, I thought at first.”

When the book begins, Heidi and her gormless live-in lover “a moon faced reprobate” named Mickey, the epicentre of a media storm, are having the times of their lives. Meanwhile, the unbalanced zealot John Calvin, the chairman of the Hanmouth Strand Neighbourhood Watch Committee, and the self-appointed, self-righteous  liaison, agent and spokesperson for Heidi O’Connor takes the disappearance of China as the excuse to crackdown on the local population, and he demands the installation of even more CCTV cameras. As the case of the missing child grows bigger, most of Hanmouth’s residents are more concerned with the image Heidi O’Connor gives of Hanmouth than the implications that they may have a child abductor in their midst. The greatest critics of the case are snobby Miranda and her book club crowd. The topic is up for discussion at the book club meeting:

“The thing I truly object to, Kitty said, “and I know this sounds trivial and I don’t care if it sounds a bit snobbish, but I do care about this. It’s that the whole world now thinks of Hanmouth as being this sort of awful council estate and nothing else, and Hanmouth people like this awful Heidi and Mickey people. Absolutely everything you read in the papers is about how they live in Hanmouth, and frankly, they don’t. They live on the Ruskin estate, where I’ve never been and I hope never to go anywhere near.” 

While most of the characters are an unpleasant lot, by far the most sympathetic characters are two outsiders, middle-aged Catherine and her retired husband Alec who, lured by the promise of picture-postcard-perfect vistas, make the mistake of moving to Hanmouth from St Albans. The book notes their forays into the real estate market and their diminishing expectations which end with the purchase of a flat–built, it seems, to deliberately ruin Miranda’s view from her million-pound plus Dutch gable home.

The book, which is divided into more-or-less into three sections, also follows the glum efforts of Catherine and Alec’s overweight, social reject gay son, David, to get the semblance of a social life. David can’t acknowledge his distress or sense of abandonment when his parents take off for Hanmouth. One subplot concerns David’s visit to Hanmouth with the very attractive Italian waiter, Mauro in tow. Mauro, under financial obligation to David,  agrees to pose as David’s lover with mixed results. David and Mauro spend an awkward weekend attending Catherine and Alec’s flatwarming party only to leave in order to attend an orgy.

In King of the Badgers, author Philip Hensher appears to be fascinated by the dichotomy between personal and private lives, and the sensitive distance between the two which is vulnerable and in increasing danger of being trespassed. It’s interesting to note that in spite of the plethora of CCTV cameras in Hanmouth, no visual record exists of China’s disappearance, yet this doesn’t stop the rabid puritanical John Calvin (is his name any coincidence?) from demanding even more CCTV cameras, eventually violating the ‘sacred’ idea of   “an Englishman’s home is his castle.”

The issues of personal and public life is prominent throughout the novel and goes far beyond the installation of CCTV cameras. There’s Miranda–a woman who lives very much in the public eye who’s guilty, as Dickens would say, of “telescopic philanthropy” saving coins for Africa while her husband leads a double life, and their daughter Hettie, disliked and mostly ignored, silently and sulkily tortures her dolls:  “Child Pornography,” “Slightly Jewish,” “Dead in Childbirth” and “Shitface.”

The book has no shortage of well-drawn characters–including Sam, the owner of the artisanal cheese shop and his gay lover Harry, whose looks, money and peerage leads the locals to punctuate his name with the well-worn phrase “what-a-waste.”  Sam, a member of Miranda’s book club, seems to attend just to stir the pot and replenish his wickedly funny observations of the local haute-ton. He  “relished [these] moments of embarrassing social disposition.” Here’s a scene from the book club meeting in which Sam stokes the disdain towards the family of the missing girl:

“I saw a newspaper photographer in a boat in the middle of the estuary, taking photographs,” Sam said eagerly. “Out there in Brian Miller’s ferryboat. Taking a photograph of the church and the strand and the quay. That’ll turn up in the Sun as a photograph of Heidi’s home town, I promise you.”

“As if that family could live somewhere like this.”

“Or, really, more to the point, as if they would ever contrive a story like this if they did live on the Strand,” Miranda said. “One may be cynical, but one does think that moral attitudes and truthfulness and not having your children kidnapped for the sake of the exposure don’t go with deprivation. It’s material deprivation that starts all this off.”

“They’ve got dishwashers, Miranda,” Bill said. “They’re not examples of material deprivation . But you’re right. You don’t hear about children disappearing from Hanmouth proper, do you? It’s just bad education, ignorance, idleness and avarice.’

“And drugs,” put in Sam. Don’t forget the drugs.”

As the novel continues, its characters forget the disappearance of China and dreams up fantasies that she’s off having a grand time in Butlin’s, and so as readers we are taken along for the ride and we too become mired in the petty dramas of life in Hanmouth. Some characters get their comeuppance, but for most, life carries on…

That should give you a taste of what you have in store in King of The Badgers. This a novel that seethes with gossip, hypocrisy, snobbery, false lives, and sheer pettiness, and I loved every bitchy minute.

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Filed under Fiction, Hensher Philip