‘The Psalm Killer’ by Chris Petit

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‘It was always the same nightmare. Cross saw them lined up in rows, in stretches of city wasteland- those derelict spaces once described to him by a child as the blank bits where things had been before they’d got blown up.
It is 1985 and a killer moves through Belfast’s blighted streets. In a time and place ruled and divided by politics and religion, his crimes cut all boundaries. Detective Inspector Cross, together with Westerby, a young policewoman, enters a maze of conspiracy and paranoia, and as the investigation draws closer to the truth, they find themselves in a nightmare world, with little hope of escape.’  

 I remember when I found this gem of a book I was meandering through the crime fiction section of my local Waterstones, looking for a dark thriller to catch my interest. This book popped out at me for two reasons, the first was that the author’s surname is very close to my own, and the second that the edition was a Picador Classic. I already had two Picador editions and, I have to admit, I’m a sucker for having books that make a neat little set on my shelf. So I picked the book up and read the blurb (above) and felt instantly drawn in. I’d just finished watching the third series of the hit TV show ‘The Fall’ and I was fascinated by Belfast and it’s history. That was it for me, the only few reasons I needed to buy the book immediately and put it straight on my ‘Read Me Soon’ shelf at home in anticipation.

Last week I noticed in my writing that I have a very Young-Adult tone that didn’t always suit the story I wanted to tell, so I decided to get stuck into this noir thriller as a way to further expose myself to that type of voice. I wasn’t disappointed. The story opens on Candlestick, a mysterious character who immediately murders a man by the name of Tommy Heron before having sex with his accomplice, the brutal Maggie. It’s quite an opening, immediately grabbing your attention and throwing you in to a  savage world of death and desire. The story then switches to Detective Inspector Cross, the hero of the piece who quickly finds himself knee deep in a strange investigation into the murder of a man who appeared to have been stored in a deep freeze days before being dumped in the middle of the road. As the bodies begin to pile up, Cross finds himself more and more concerned with the idea that a single murderer is responsible and struggles to search through the complicated politics of Belfast to discover why.

What I really loved about reading this book was that it never shied away from the darkness. The author lead you straight to the murderer and his victims and allowed you to get a good look at him and what he did with an unflinching stare that left you unable to put the book down. The investigation was intricate and, to someone fairly unfamiliar with the history of Belfast’s troubles such as myself, occasionally confusing. But that was always part of the charm, detective stories that lead you straight to the simplest answers are boring- no one wants to immediately know who did it and how- they want to be lead a merry dance first. The thrill is in the chase, the twists and turns of the journey, not in the answer itself.

Although, I do have to be honest, I could see the identity of the murderer and his muse coming a mile off. As soon as they were introduced I knew they wouldn’t have been given such importance if it wasn’t them. That didn’t necessarily make it less enjoyable, it just made it more predictable. But, of course knowing who did it isn’t the whole solution, I can honestly say the why surprised me and more than made up for the obvious who. The final showdown between Cross, Westerby and their prey was a fantastic scene and one that left me completely in awe of the writer’s skill.

My only real issue with this book was the affair of Cross and Westerby. You could see it coming a mile off and it left me bored. Reducing the brilliant Westerby who arguably figured out most of the case on her own and even took on both murderers single handedly at the end to a lovesick woman who gets so sidetracked by a crush that she can’t even do her job annoyed me and alienated me as a reader. It’s always the same, when a man and woman who work together get involved romantically or sexually in any story the man always carries on doing his job while the woman is the one mooning around unable to do anything other than think about her man. Give me a break. She was worth so much more than that and it would have made more sense for her character if those bits were cut out. If you must put in a cliche and unnecessary romance fine but if you honestly think men, especially a complete mess like Cross, would get in the way of a woman’s ability to do her job and even function independently of them then you clearly think a lot of yourself and not a lot of a woman’s capability or concentration. You can tell it was written by a bloke.

All in all, I did really enjoy reading this book and it left me feeling a lot more confident about the sort of voice and tone to use to suit stories in this genre. Just a shame the phenomenal ending was spoilt by the inane romance.

4 stars

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