Monaghan knows how to grab the reader’s attention, the opening to this novel is intriguing, portentous and mysterious. The plot unfolds over two time lines: the run up to the murders nearly fifty years ago and 2017 when two bodies are discovered. The modern chapters cover the official police inquiry and DNA expert Sian Love’s own more unorthodox digging around, this case is very personal for her. The drip feeding of the story is beautifully controlled and mildly frustrating, as it should be, it leaves the reader searching for answers – which is very satisfying.

October, 1967, Nottingham, Saturday night in the Loggerheads pub. Harry is having a quiet drink with his mate Bobby Q. There are three old ladies in one corner, they beckon Harry across. Gladys asks Harry if he’d like a tarot reading, there’s nothing else going on so he agrees. Harry turns a couple of cards: The King of Swords and ‘this un’s death but don’t take it all literal.’ Gladys reassures him, ‘You’ll be king of your world’, and there’ll be a beautiful girl in his story too, ‘I see you, nearly half a century after the day you both get wed, wrapped in each other’s arms.’

2017 Sian Love is moving in to her new home, the disused Loggerheads, she inherited the pub from her uncle Robert, who used to run it. Kris is helping Sian, their relationship is complicated, they used to work on the murder squad together when she was a DCI. Sian now has her own DNA lab and Kris is still a DS on the force. There’s something niggling Sian about the old building, maybe it was her mother’s warning about the place, surely it just needs some TLC. Her dog Elvis is behaving strangely, the move must have upset him. Sian and Kris take a break at the pub, they row and she winds up coming back to her new home alone. Sian can’t sleep and Elvis is still playing up, he’s at the cellar door. It’s daft to be afraid so Sian takes a look. Elvis begins scratching at the far wall and whimpering, a cold chill strikes her, Elvis was a police cadaver dog. She rips down the plaster wall to find a door. Impatient she breaks it down, falls and injures her leg. As she scrabbles to get up she touches something – ‘It was a hand’:

‘Dried-up flesh like beef jerky lined the bones; nails like filthy daggers thrust out of the ends of what was left of the fingers.’

There are two bodies in the cellar. She calls Kris to help her but can’t resist taking a DNA sample. Sian winds up in plaster, Kris calls his boss to open an investigation. The police think they know who the bodies might be and that makes her uncle Robert the number one suspect in a double killing. When Sian runs her private DNA test she gets the shock of her life, things just became very personal.

This is an intriguing murder mystery, with a couple of nice twists, Monahan has a flair for leading the reader in a certain direction only to shift path further along. The tarot reading is an eerie way of prefacing the events that follow. There are more shocks in store for Sian and not everyone wants the truth to come out, but dealing in a fifty-year-old case with few witnesses is very frustrating for her. Did I mention the Loggerheads pub was owned by local gangster Pat Walsh?

The seventies-set storyline is fascinating from the off, of course, we can’t take our first assumption for granted, who is in the cellar, how did they get there and who did it? You really do care. The modern investigation with Sian is less gripping initially, establishing a new character is always a balancing act with action. When the truth comes out it leads to an exciting denouement. I think this is a promising start for a new series.

Monaghan creates a vivid portrait of the city of Nottingham in the early seventies and now, the Loggerheads pub versus the Pitcher and Piano, even with the dead bodies I know which I prefer!

Nicola Monaghan lives in Nottingham, she teaches creative writing and has written several novels. Her debut The Killing Jar won a Betty Trask Award.

Paul Burke 4/4

Dead Flowers by Nicola Monaghan
Verve Books 9780857308023 pbk Dec 2019