Book Four of the DCI Jane Birchfield Murder Mysteries by Heaton Wilson
The old adagio “starting in medias res” (i.e. into the midst of things) takes a whole new meaning in this recently released crime fiction novel. The opening pages of Beneath the Surface already contain all the core elements of a crime scene: a young woman, Mary MacDonald and her lover, Geoff Pegg are spending a spicy afternoon at her place in the small idyllic village of Cardale (just north of Manchester), when Rob Simmons, a local boy, runs into the side of the house with his tractor, causing the whole building to collapse on the two unlucky lovers, killing them instantly.
DCI Jane Birchfield, the main character of all books in the series, begins to investigate. The first thing she wants to clarify is: was it an accident, was the driver drunk, was it a scorned rejected lover or were drugs involved? As a matter of fact, under the rubbles of what once was Mary’s cottage, the police finds a small bag containing a white powder that turns out to be cocaine.
Birchfield peruses all possibilities, but while Rob Simmons was probably tipsy – he himself declares he was at the pub before crushing into the cottage – he also mentions that the brakes of his tractor weren’t working properly. Birchfield decides to pay a visit to Sid Marsh, owner of Marsh Farm (and the tractor). Sid is a city boy who, tired and engrossed with London, decided to move up North with his wife Julie, where they bought a farm. Their dream is to successfully produce and sell organic products, proving to the locals they are not the rookies everyone believes, but things are not going as well as they hoped and, despite all their efforts, the Farm is in debt. For this reason, the tractor was not sent for the annual MOT. Birchfield is not totally sold on this version of events and continues her investigation.
Behind closed doors, Sid and Julie Marsh are far from the idyllic couple they want to portray in public but are instead on the verge of divorce. He is a heavy drinker/borderline alcoholic, full of debts and in the process of selling part of his land to property developers. He did have a reason for wanting Mary dead, as she used to run the village residents group, in charge of preserving the local territory against savage property speculation.
At the same time, though, there are plans afoot in the village for gas exploration, which are most welcome, as they will create new jobs within the struggling rural community. Sid and Julie strongly oppose these, as they would have a negative impact on the environment, destroy habitats and poison the atmosphere. One more reason to point at Sid as the most probable suspect.
Things suddenly take a turn for the worse when, on his way back home after a night at the local pub, Rob Simmons is found unconscious in a nearby ditch. It seems like an accident, but he’s found with cocaine in his pocket and Jane is on the alert once again. She rightly decides to pursue the drugs lead, but what she will find out is totally unexpected and definitely impossible to imagine, in a twists and turns final that will leave readers’ heads spinning.
‘Beneath the Surface’ is simply brilliant: it’s well written, it shows the writer’s great knowledge of the Mancunian territory and population and it’s clear that a great amount of research on police procedures and investigative methods has gone into it. It’s an absolute page turner, from the beginning to the end, which is absolutely unexpected and unpredictable: in fact, there are no tell-tale signs of who is the real mastermind behind the whole drug ring.
In addition, the intermissions provided by personal matters (a friends’ wedding, Jane and her former boyfriend trying to get back together, Ross and Lorry’s meaningful exchanges of personal problems in the police station cafeteria) make the characters vibrant, human and extremely likeable, drawing the reader even more into the story.
The only thing that could probably be improved is the tone: at times the pace is too slow and not gripping enough. If you consider this is a thriller, as a reader I’d like to be constantly on my toes. However, this is a minor weakness that doesn’t take anything away from the story.
Definitely a book I would read again and I do look forward to reading the other books in the series!
‘Beneath the Surface’ is a new release (August 2022) and is available at: https://amzn.to/3StXpxo
About Heaton Wilson
Originally from Manchester, he now lives on the beautiful Isle of Wight. When he’s not writing stories, he loves campervan trips and working outdoors, maintaining the garden against attack from sea breezes, bracken, brambles and rabbits; and walking his two dogs, Robbie and Twiggy. Heaton loves writing crime fiction and has published a series featuring the nice/tough/feisty DCI Jane Birchfield. All his other books (‘Every Reason’, ‘Whatever It Takes’ and ‘Retribution’) are available on Amazon. (source: heatonwilsonbooks.com)