Monday, April 25, 2016

Review: The Drowning Ground by James Marrison

The Drowning Ground by James Marrison, March 2016, 384 pages, Paperback, Penguin, ISBN: 1405916931

Reviewed by Lynn Harvey.
(Read more of Lynn's reviews for Euro Crime here.)

A noise came behind me, muffled in the roar of the fire. A shout. I looked back. Turner was crouching in the opening of the space, gesturing wildly for me to get out. I had never seen anyone so angry or so scared. I ignored him and concentrated on the body in front of me.

Lower Quinton, Cotswolds, August 1997.
The housekeeper had managed to pull the body of Sarah Hurst out of the swimming pool and when DCI Guillermo Downes arrives the medical and police teams are already in place. It takes two men to hold back Frank Hurst when he sees his wife's body. Somewhere else in the house the housekeeper is comforting Hurst's teenage daughter.

Moreton-in-Marsh, Cotswolds, December 2002.
DS Graves arrives at his new posting, a police station neat and quiet, very unlike his previous place. His boss, Guillermo Downes has not yet arrived but lunchtime chat in the canteen introduces Graves to his boss's nickname of “Shotgun”, no-one can tell him how he earned it. They do tell him however that Downes has got through two new assistants in no time at all. Graves loses his appetite; this isn't going to be the easy fresh start he was hoping for. Graves' introduction to Downes himself comes as he stares at a magazine cutting pinned to their office wall: a photo, headlined in Spanish, of a leaping footballer and an ecstatic crowd. “Hooligans” says the voice behind him, fondness in its tone. Then Downes extends his hand to Graves, all business. Next morning, Chief Inspector Downes drives to Lower Quinton, Meon Hill to be precise. A body has been found by a dog walker. Two bodies in fact. A man with a pitchfork thrust into his neck. And his black labrador, hanging from a tree by its choke chain. The dead man is Frank Hurst, owner of the land around Meon Hill. Seeing Hurst brings back memories for Downes: the man's dead wife, lying beside their pool five years ago...

Frank Hurst, a reclusive local landowner, is found brutally murdered whilst mending the hedges of his field, his dog also dead. A witness reports seeing a white van earlier in the afternoon, its driver standing arguing with Hurst. DCI Guillermo Downes had had strong suspicions of Hurst over the death of his wife, drowned in their swimming pool, but the chief had insisted that Hurst had a good alibi and there was no case to prove. It was the rusted flower-hairpin that Downes found in the swimming pool that stoked Downes' suspicions of Frank Hurst, and not just for the murder of his wife. Downes is wondering about the unsolved disappearance of two young local girls a couple of years before the death of Mrs Hurst. When a fire in the Hurst mansion reveals another, long dead, corpse – DCI Downes and his new assistant DS Graves are led into the dark territory of child abduction.

THE DROWNING GROUND is James Marrison's d├ębut crime novel. Marrison having been born and raised in the Cotswolds but now living in Argentina and working as a journalist gives us a clue to the origins of Marrison's protagonist, the Anglo-Argentinian police detective Guillermo “Shotgun” Downes. And as my usual reading choice is that of foreign crime in translation how can I resist the call of an Argentinian police detective working in the heart of rural England? In the earlier passages of the book, Downes' thoughts include the occasional Argentinian phrase or comparison which brings a sense of the “otherness” of Downes but further into the story this flavour in Guillermo's internal speech seems lost and I missed it. There are references to what might have caused Downes to leave Argentina, rooted in the dark days of the military junta in the early 1980s, but his full story remains a mystery. As does the reason for his new Detective Sergeant’s apparent fall from grace in his previous Oxford posting. I get the sense that Marrison plans more for this pairing.

Marrison's writing is atmospheric. Good at capturing place, landscape, weather, time of day, he paints pictures well. His characters are carefully observed and he successfully builds anticipation and suspense. The twist of the final “whodunnit” moment is surprising. But I did have difficulty with Marrison's device of first-person voicing most of the book from the point of view of Guillermo Downes then placing DS Graves' passages in the third person. It's a risky ploy and, although some readers seem to have liked the technique, it didn't work for me – I found the narrative switch jarring. But even though this book did not always hit the spot for me, I hope James Marrison will continue to write about the criminal world of Graves and Downes. There are definite strengths in the writing and plenty of room for its Broadchurch-like darkness. I hope there will be more to come for this Argentinian cast adrift in the assumed gentility of the Cotswolds.

Lynn Harvey, April 2016

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