Saturday, 3 May 2008

Waterloo Sunset

Martin Edwards's Waterloo Sunset is the eighth book in his series featuring Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin. It's a series to which Martin has returned after a break of nearly a decade - a period during which he has turned his attention to writing the first three novels in the new Lake District series, to editing collections of short stories (for news of the latest of which see here), and to writing an updated edition of one of his legal textbooks. As well as, somehow, fitting in his day-job as partner in a top Liverpool law firm.

Harry's return this year - when Liverpool is the European Capital of Culture - is timely and, I suspect, not entirely coincidental. An atmosphere of change and regeneration pervades the book.

'The windows in their last office had been encrusted with grime, so that the city outside was tinted sepia, like an Edwardian photograph in a dusty junk shop. Now
the glitzy hotels and apartment blocks of twenty-first century Liverpool shimmered like a mirage in the summer light. Cranes swivelled like sentinels, and drills roared as they churned up paving stones. He'd lived there all his life, yet sometimes he lost his bearings amid the road-works and the fenced-off sites, with their hard-hat signs and blood-red warnings to put safety first. '

The prestigious, refurbished building in which Harry's solicitors firm is now housed - with coffee shops at ground level and exclusive penthouses at the top - takes on a prominent role not only as a symbol of New Liverpool but as a location for a large part of the action. And specific real-life locations are crucial to the plot, too - from St Nicholas's Church and its gardens, to Antony Gormley's iconic installation of a hundred iron men - 'Another Place' - which stand on the beach between Crosby and Waterloo, just north of Liverpool.

And Harry himself has changed. He's matured nicely over the decade since his last outing - and the reappearance of an old flame from the previous novels reinforces the sense of his having 'moved on' - not that he's settled down with a good woman in the intervening period, needless to say, nor that his life isn't shot through with flashes of mid-lifey regret and self-doubt. But his passion for justice and his gritty determination to follow his hunches and see things through to the end, regardless of their impact on his career, are stronger than ever and make him a very likeable and sympathetic character.

Waterloo Sunset opens five days before Midsummer's Eve and Harry has just received an anonymously delivered announcement of his death: 'In Memory, Harry Devlin, Died suddenly, Liverpool, Midsummer's Eve'. Is this a hoax, or is someone really planning to kill him? He has less than a week to find out.

The same day, a young woman is murdered and mutilated on Waterloo beach - the first in a chain of events which point to the work of a serial killer. Harry is soon intimately drawn into investigating two seemingly separate mysteries: who sent the mock obituary, and is it harassment or a genuine death threat? - and the identity of an actual murderer. Could the two be connected? Harry negotiates his way round a large cast of characters from all walks of life, and an increasingly bewildering succession of events, including a brutal attack on someone close to him, in order to discover the truth.

Having read the rest of the Devlin over the past twelve months (though not, unfortunately, in strict sequence), I think I can safely say that the latest is the best. I'm not an avid fan of crime fiction per se, so when I do pick up a crime novel I tend to read and judge it primarily from a literary point of view - I'm really not particularly bothered about finding out who dunnit unless I've derived some pleasure from the quality of the writing along the way.

Martin Edwards does not disappoint in this respect. He gives us, in Harry, a very plausible 'hero'. He's 'flawed', of course - aren't the best detective heroes always flawed? (cf Rebus, Morse et al) it's what makes them so irresistibly attractive to female readers!) - and fallible, but not in an overstated way. We see pretty much all the action from Harry's point of of view and this draws us close to his thought processes - we don't ever get that unpleasant sense of having been 'cheated' because our hero is too many steps ahead of us.

The pace is well judged throughout - it has its breathless, nail-biting moments and more than one dramatic, revelatory climax near the end, but these are interspersed with pauses for reflection - so it manages to be a page-turner while still allowing the reader to breathe normally part of the time. Edwards is scrupulously fair with his readers, the clues to the mysteries are all in there - it's just that this reader, for one, was too stupid to pick up on them all and so the answers came as a complete surprise.

You can see Martin Edwards with one of the Iron Men here. And Martin's blog offers fascinating daily insights into his own writing life in particular and crime fiction and films in general.


Anonymous said...

Very nice post, Juliet. I thoroughly enjoyed Waterloo Sunset and think Martin Edwards deserves great success with it. I particularly liked all the ironic social comment on the various "Liverpool city of culture" aspects.
I haven't read the earlier books in this series (though I have a couple waiting), but have read the first two Lake District novels, which I also very much enjoyed.

Kerrie said...

Thanks for the review Juliet. I am looking forward to reading the book.

Juliet said...

Maxine - I don't think it's necessary to read the previous books first. This can easily stand alone, though I'm sure you'll find you want to explore some of the hints about Harry's past which this book offers. He's a different kind of hero from Daniel Kind, but just as nice and one of the great mysteries of the series has to be why he hasn't been snapped up by a 'suitable' woman!

Kerrie - Hi - I just popped over to visit your blog and particularly enjoyed your recent post on memes. I find them very tedious on many levels and recently declared my blog a tag-free, meme-free zone. I'm waiting to see how many friends this loses me!

Anonymous said...

Juliet- I always wondered why I never met any characters like those in so many crime fic books -- solitary, flawed, sensitive, lonely, thoughtful, etc. Do they exist?

And I am with you and Kerrie on memes, that's for sure!