Russell has carved herself a reputation for crime novels that explore the darker side of human nature. So it’s no surprise that things turn nasty very quickly in this grounded, gritty thriller. This is just the way I like my police procedurals: edgy and real. Death Rope is a top-notch page turner and Detective Sergeant Geraldine Steel is a plausible and likeable central character. There is a strong sense of tension and danger that threatens to consume Geraldine here, we are talking both physical danger and psychological harm. She must adjust to life in a new city in the midst of a hunt for a ruthless killer who enjoys inflicting pain and death.

There’s always a concern when you read a novel in a well-established series that some of the energy and invention that went into the early books might be missing or tailing off. Not a bit of that here, Death Rope is a layered thriller with an enduring central character, Russell manages to retain a fresh relevant feel to her writing. It would be a bit mean to mention specific names, so I won’t, but Russell is better than a lot of the authors she is compared to, not least because the reader can sense the darkness (the weight of the crime and it’s consequences). It would be rare to read a modern crime novel that didn’t juggle a number of issues, but Death Rope has a natural feel to the way contemporary concerns are portrayed as facets of modern life; gambling and drug addiction, domestic abuse, loneliness and personal relationships, grief and family politics. There’s a balance between the professional and the personal that works very well in Death Rope, neither overshadows the other.

Fans will already know how good this series of novels is. I’d recommend catching up with a few of Death Rope‘s predecessors if possible, but you will have no problem getting into the rhythm here as a newcomer. Geraldine has recently been demoted to detective sergeant, it’s one of the things she is dealing with and part of the reason she left London for York. Geraldine is now part of the murder squad based at the Fulford Road police station. She’s contemplating selling her place in the capital and moving here permanently. She has one friend here, Inspector Ian Paterson, they were a team in the past, and there are a couple of colleagues she is beginning to get to know better, but there is also her family in London to consider.

Charlotte Abbott finds her husband, Mark, hanging from the banister in the hall, she runs for the gardener, Will Donovan, to help. He grabs Mark’s legs holding the weight and shouting at Charlotte to focus and call an ambulance, Charlotte seems to hesitate. It’s a powerful image, not just of death but also the futile attempt to save Mark’s life. Amidst the confusion and fear, Charlotte notes that the shopping she brought home has spilled, a tomato has been crushed on the floor. It’s a moment of absurdity that is very human, touchingly real.

Geraldine is visiting London to see Celia, her adoptive sister, wondering whether this is a good time to tell her she’s moving to York? She funks it, later in the novel she will have to deal with the troubles of birth twin, Helena, a recovering drug addict too. Geraldine is not long back in York when Amanda Abbott walks into station claiming that her brother has been murdered. When Geraldine interviews her, it turns out Mark Abbott’s death was assumed to be a suicide by everyone else. Amanda thinks that her sister-in-law Charlotte killed her husband, just one week after the clause in his life insurance allowed for a pay-out for suicidal death (the pay-out is £200,000). Eileen, the DCI, lets Geraldine make a few inquiries on the QT but she thinks this feels like a family dispute, mere recrimination. Eileen says: “If every widow was accused of murdering her husband when she inherited his estate, we’d have more suspects than police officers.” Still, no one seems to think that Mark was the “type” to commit suicide.

The Abbott’s marriage was a bit rocky and the relationship between the widow, her stepson, Eddy, and his wife Luciana seems strained; not to mention how everyone feels about auntie Amanda. Charlotte knows no one else cares about her husband’s infidelity and Eddy needs a lot of money but is either enough to justify murder? Geraldine knows something is not right but the investigation doesn’t throw up much concrete to go on. Then Charlotte Abbott, alone for the first time in years, thinks she is being followed by a black van. Geraldine is about to be shelve the investigation when a second member of the family goes missing, but much worse is yet to come. Who is the thug with the attack dog in the cellar and the battered partner in the living room?

In truth, there is a part of the case that the reader can figure out quite easily but there’s another aspect that is complex and intriguing and that grips like a vice and takes all the attention. Russell has created a strong well rounded cast of characters and a very decent plot. Death Rope will thrill and chill. A better class of police procedural.

Paul Burke 4/4

Death Rope by Leigh Russell
No Exit Press 9781843449348 pbk Nov 18