Twenty-five-year old Goth Cassie Raven, with her dyed, partly shaved hair, multiple piercings, tattoos and an inherent distrust of the police, is the likeable protagonist of this engaging and entertaining crime story. A mortuary technician and something of a loner, she loves her job, always treating the bodies in her care with compassion and respect, talking to them to reassure them she’ll look after them. She believes that the dead can talk and that, if she listens, they will tell her what happened to them.

Following the deaths of her parents in a car crash when she was four, she was brought up by her strict but loving Polish maternal grandmother, Weronika Janek. Although she grew up being told about her mother, Weronika never wanted to talk about Cassie’s father, other than to make it clear that she didn’t like him. As Cassie’s vague memories of him were of a loving, playful person, this left her with the feeling that there was something her grandmother was holding back, yet she felt unable to press for more information.

As a child she tended to be a loner, finding it difficult to trust people; she also developed what many regarded as a morbid interest in dead creatures. As a teenager she rebelled against Weronika’s strictness and although bright, dropped out of school with just four GCSEs, leaving home when she was seventeen to go and live in a squat with her boyfriend. Even when her relationship with him ended, she continued to enjoy her life of rebellion, moving from squat to squat with an ever-changing group of housemates, sharing everything from food to drugs. However, eighteen months later her life changed when, selling the Big Issue on the street, a middle-aged woman bought a copy of the magazine and stopped to chat. She was a science teacher from the local adult education college and soon became a regular customer, always bringing Cassie a cup of coffee and a sandwich. As a result of their developing relationship she persuaded Cassie to study for her A levels, a decision which led her to the job she loves.

However, one day Cassie’s world is turned upside down when she discovers that the body on her mortuary slab is that of Geraldine Edwards, her friend and mentor: she had been found drowned in the bath. The pathologist ruled that her death was accidental but Cassie is convinced that ‘Mrs E.’ is telling her that it wasn’t. With no evidence to go on, other than her instincts, she is determined to do everything she can to uncover the truth. Her investigations bring her into contact with DS Phyllida Flyte, who has recently moved from Winchester to Camden and is feeling very much an outsider in her new team. She appears to be a rather obsessional, uptight woman who, with her ‘not a hair out of place’ appearance, appears to have little in common with Cassie. Their suspicion of each other is mutually instinctive, especially when the body of an elderly man goes missing from the mortuary and Phyllida initially regards Cassie as the prime suspect. However, it soon becomes clear that what they do have in common is a pride in doing their jobs well and a commitment to seeking the truth in order to bring justice to victims of crime.

Although this story is told mainly through the eyes of Cassie, some chapters are devoted to Phyllida’s perspective, allowing the reader to observe the various influences which drive their determined pursuit of truth and justice. Both characters are satisfyingly well-developed and I really enjoyed seeing how each of them coped with working together. In their different ways, and for different reasons, they both find it difficult to trust, instinctively inclined to put up defensive emotional barriers whenever they feel that other people are getting too close. Yet gradually each was able to recognise the other’s emotional vulnerability, adding an edginess to their developing relationship. I was impressed by the psychological credibility of the various ways in which the author explored the tentative ‘one-step-forward, two-steps-back’ behaviour which typified so many of their interactions. In fact, strong character development is one of the strengths of this story, with even the more minor characters feeling fully formed and therefore memorable. Even though his appearances in this story are relatively brief, the new pathologist, Dr Archie Cuff – wearer of an old-Harrovian tie, cufflinks and a genuine Barbour jacket (‘not a knock-off’) and arrogantly disinclined to pay attention to the observations of a lowly technician – is shown to be capable of change!

There is a thread running through the story about how the psychological effects of trauma and unresolved grief can manifest themselves in a range of dysfunctional behaviour within relationships. I was very impressed by the psychologically credible ways in which the author explored this in relation to not only the two main characters, but also as a theme in the lives of some of the more minor ones. I thought the plot-development and the pacing of the story were well-handled, with enough unexpected twists to make it an enjoyable and satisfying read. I had wondered whether I might feel rather cynical about the paranormal aspect of the story but the way in which this was handled always felt plausible – probably because I felt able to analyse it in psycho-dynamic terms! Camden is an area of London I know well and, with its rather edgy, alternative-lifestyle vibe, it felt like an ideal choice of location for as ‘off-beat’ a character as Cassie. I thought that the author’s evocative descriptions brought the area alive, adding an enjoyable extra dimension to the storytelling.

I also enjoyed the detailed descriptions of Cassie’s job and increasing my knowledge of the range of procedures in a mortuary, not only in relation to how the physical examination is carried out, but also the little techniques used to make the body ‘fit’ for the relatives to view. I also discovered that there are differences between a post mortem ordered by a coroner in the event of an unexplained death, and the more detailed forensic one which is required to determine the cause of death following a crime. In the former the evisceration of the body and the taking of samples of bodily fluids for analysis is done by an anatomical pathology technician, like Cassie, with the pathologist  examining the organs once they’ve been removed, whilst in the latter the pathologist is responsible for the whole process, with the pathology technician’s role being to assist. From the level of detail included in the scenes set in the mortuary it was clear that the author must have done considerable research. A similar attention to detail was also apparent in her descriptions of what life on the streets is like for the homeless and the drug addicts.

This is the first story in a new series and, with some firm foundations already laid, I’m very much looking forward to getting to know this cast of memorable characters better – including Weronika and Macavity, Cassie’s cat!

With thanks to Readers First and the publisher for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Reviewed by Linda Hepworth
Personal read: 4*
Group read: 2*

Zaffre     (Imprint of Bonnier Books UK)   26th November 2020
ISBN: 978-1-83877-004-4