One body, six victims, body parts sewn together and strung from the ceiling of a London flat like a puppet. Immediately christened the Ragdoll Killer by the press, it is up to Detective Sergeant William Fawkes and his team at New Scotland Yard to identify the constituent parts. When Fawkes’ journalist ex-wife receives a list of six more people who are going to die – a list that includes Fawkes himself – the connection to the Cremation Killer, the case that made Fawkes a household name, is immediately obvious. But as Fawkes’ appointment with death approaches, the team must look to his past for answers and what they find there might not be what they expected.
Daniel Cole’s debut novel opens with a brief glimpse at the case that made William Oliver Layton-Fawkes, nicknamed Wolf, famous, and which also shaped the man he has become four years later. As a result, the reader goes into the main storyline with their eyes wide open, Wolf’s questionable approach to policing promising an intriguing investigation. Intriguing it most certainly is, and from the point that that opening courtroom scene fades to black, Ragdoll is the type of book that is almost impossible to put down.
There are many points that set Ragdoll apart from your average serial killer thriller, the dark central character and the rich vein of comedy being two of the most obvious. A cross between Boris Starling’s Messiah and Sky’s “A Touch of Cloth”, Cole manages to combine the best parts of both into something completely new and fresh. From the outset, it’s clear that the comedy won’t get in the way of an intense story, as it so often can. Ragdoll is gruesome and frightening, a real sense of menace plaguing the reader through its pages. The murders are startlingly original, usually completely unexpected and constructed in such a way that even the comic moments don’t relieve the tension.
The central cast of characters are memorable and go a long way towards making the reader feel comfortable in this world, drawing us completely into the story and, in many ways, giving us a stake in the outcome. From Wolf, damaged and downtrodden to smart-mouthed Baxter, a confident woman making a man’s world her own, and Edmunds, young and new to the squad, smart and keen to learn, despite the constant haranguing from more senior colleagues. Around this core are a set of lesser characters, no less well-developed: Finlay Shaw, a couple of years from retirement, with no desire to make any big splashes; Wolf’s ex-wife Andrea Hall, a bloodthirsty journalist who will do anything to be first with the story, regardless of what danger it places people in; and Elijah Reid, her Piers Morgan-like editor-in-chief, a man with no moral compass for whom nothing is too sensationalist.
This is an old-fashioned serial killer story where the reader is kept as much in the dark as the detectives. Nothing is told from the killer’s point of view, so Cole plays the motives close to the chest until the novel hits the three-quarters mark, at which point everything kicks into high gear. In many ways its adherence to the tried and trusted formula makes it feel fresh and new again, the power of the novel in the story itself, not in the ways in which it attempts to subvert the genre. While the comedy sometimes feels forced (although my own personal preference is to avoid outright humour, because what works for one person is likely to fall flat on its face for many others), it is never overplayed to the point that it feels annoying. For the most part, it’s a natural comic feeling, stemming from the characters themselves, much of it the sort of gallows humour we’ve come to expect from crime fiction.
Ragdoll started life as a pitch for a television show, and its origins are plain to see. There is a very cinematic feel to the story which, coupled with a sense that something is always happening somewhere in earshot, gives Cole a very distinctive voice. One of the most interesting aspects of his debut is the sense that we have walked into the middle of someone else’s life: there are no introductions, little in the way of backstory on any but the central characters, leaving us with a sense that these people have known each other for a long time, and that we’ve stepped into their lives for a very brief moment to watch one specific episode. So well is this managed that for one brief moment, I had to check that I wasn’t jumping into the middle of a series. It’s disconcerting, but it is a mark of the author’s confidence that he doesn’t feel the need to slow the story down to introduce us to the players.
Dark, funny, gripping. There is no easy way to sum up Ragdoll, except to say that it is an excellent debut, an accomplished and satisfying story that immediately boosts Daniel Cole into the ranks of “must-read”. With compelling characters and a story that grips from the outset, Ragdoll is guaranteed to be one of the best crime novels you’ll read this year, and Daniel Cole a name we’ll hopefully be hearing a lot more of in the near future.