The Divinities is a genuinely exciting addition to the British police procedural canon. I welcome the arrival of Crane and Drake with open arms, certainly without the reservations the pair have about each other when they meet. This is a contemporary crime novel set in London; it’s dark, witty and more than a little bit cynical, a great mix. The enjoyment I got from this novel is going to stay with me, if Bilal can maintain this energy I hope this series runs for a long time.
The opening scene tells you so much about Drake, the lone wolf detective, but Bilal has a few surprises in store which make you rethink his character and even his back ground as the novel progresses, nothing gimmicky or ham-fisted. Crane, has her own dark past and is a perfect foil for Drake.
Balham High Street, just gone 4 a.m., Sergeant Cal Drake has parked up his BMW and ducked into a dark corner for a slash, he comes back to the burger and coffee resting on the car roof. He might as well drive to the Ravenhill station, park up and sleep it off before going to work. Across the road there’s a woman on the garage forecourt, classy looking, Audi A3 driver. At this time of day she could be a prostitute or maybe a businesswoman? She’s shouting something. Then he notices the two black helmeted youths on a bike making off with her mobile. They turn his way – bad move – a bin brings them down and Drake wades in. One of them pulls a knife, but he soon sees the error of his ways. Drake returns the phone, let’s the boys scarper and takes a £50 thank you from the woman; after all, she can afford it.
His phone goes, he has to get to Magnolia Quay, off the York Road in Battersea. Two bodies have turned up on a building site. The uniform says it’s a couple of kids but Drake takes a look, it’s a man and a woman, both about 40s, 50ish, buried in rubble from the back of a truck. This is no ordinary break in. It should probably go to Homicide & Major Crimes (HMCC), but Drake calls Wheeler and asks for the case. After all, he’s ready and his people, DCs Kelly Marsh and Milo Kowalski, are on the scene. Wheeler gives them forty eight hours before the investigation goes to DCI Pryce at HMCC. Drake and Pryce have history.
The site is a luxury development, the victims were buried alive, the bodies are well dressed, the man appears to be Japanese. A mauve Porsche Cayenne outside the site is registered to Marsha Thwaite, wife of the site developer, so the other victim is most likely her. They have hardly begun digging the bodies out when divisional superintendent Dryden Wheeler turns up in person. He knows Howard Thwaite, a big-wig with friends in high places; this case just became political. The caretaker who found the bodies, Mr. Kardax, isn’t who/what he seems, and everyone is wondering, ‘was Mrs. Thwaite playing away from home?’ Soon, Thwaite’s money troubles come to light, his company future depends on this development. Was Tei Hideo connected to Marsha Thwaite through her gallery and his love of Ukiyo-e, the Japanese art of the floating world? Motives begin popping up. Wheeler adds a forensic psychologist to Drake’s team, Dr. Crane is on the Met. payroll anyway, but Drake is not taken by Rayhana Crane’s theory about a ritual burial.
Drake is an instinctive copper and a leap of faith nets rewards, so the investigation heads off in a new direction. The past is coming back to haunt the present and it brings back memories for both Crane and Drake. This is a very satisfying layered mystery with a cracking denouement.
Crane and Drake are a fascinating new crime fiction pairing. Bilal has used tropes to set them up as typical characters but then sought to subvert that giving them original and interesting traits. So they are familiar to us as man/woman, cop/doctor, shady/suspicious, but then nuances and breaks from the norm appear. When Crane and Drake meet it’s quietly hostile, but unlike a lot of buddy relationships they don’t just settle down to a mutual appreciation, they begin to investigate each other – know your enemy. Drake could care less about Crane’s theory to begin with but his tough, fast, no nonsense policing only gets them so far, his efforts are matched by her cerebral analysis. Crane also has contacts and access to information useful to the case. The pair come to realise each others strengths, even if its not easy to fully trust yet. The rest of the team fit nicely too there’s a nice line in cop humour and gallows banter, which is also a little bit original. The strife between Pryce and Drake adds spice to the story.
Bilal has the literary knack of sketching a character quickly but imbuing a rounded personality. Both Crane and Drake’s back stories are intriguing. Again the initial details of their pasts are very familiar, Drake, for instance, had a tough childhood and an army career, but Bilal manages to deliver that with originality too. You can find out about Crane for yourself.
I read the first of the Makana Investigations novel set in Turkey and was unimpressed, I thought it was an ordinary read, I never went back to the series, now I’m wondering what I missed. This opener for a new series set in London is a cracker. A layered no nonsense thriller that is fun, intriguing and exciting by turns. If there’s any justice this will be the first in a best selling series. The last couple of years have seen new writers tear up the norms in British crime thriller, with this cracking police procedural Bilal has joined the ranks of Liam McIlvanney, A.A. Dhand, Joseph Knox.
Parker Bilal is the pen name of literary author Jamal Majhoub. If you are looking for an intelligent entertaining historical novel I would recommend The Carrier (1998).
Paul Burke 5/4
The Divinities by Parker Bilal
The Indigo Press 9781999683375 pbk May 2019