R.C. Bridgestock (www.rcbridgestock.com)
The Dome Press (www.thedomepress.com)
Charley Mann returns to her Yorkshire hometown of Huddersfield, following a 4-year secondment to London, to take on the role of head of CID in the station where she spent her formative years in the police force. With barely a chance to meet old friends, and introduce herself to any newcomers, she and her team are summoned to a crime scene in the wilderness of the Yorkshire moors: a woman is hanging by her feet from the branches of an ancient tree. It doesn’t take long for Charley’s team to understand that this is a dump site set up to look like a crime scene, and when a second body is found in short order with a similar cause of death, and similarly dumped in an area that has been made to look like a crime scene, it quickly becomes obvious that they are both victims of the same perpetrator. While she tries to imprint her authority on her team and solve the crimes as quickly as possible, Charley finds herself up against her Divisional Commander, and a particularly persistent local reporter who is also her abusive ex-boyfriend, and one of the reasons she left for London in the first place.
Bob and Carol Bridgestock, the husband-and-wife duo behind R.C. Bridgestock, have an impressive body of work behind them, as well as first-hand knowledge of how the West Yorkshire Police work, including the eight-book (so far) DI Dylan series, and consultancy credits on several recent high-profile British crime dramas, including the BBC’s Happy Valley. In Payback, they introduce us to their new series character, the young, brilliant Detective Inspector Charley Mann. While young, Mann is an interesting character, with a past that haunts her and brings her to life as we read. Ex-mounted police, Charley is determined to find the culprit who killed her beloved horse and partner, Eddie and, as the story progresses, we discover that institutional sexism and an old-fashioned attitude to domestic violence were key drivers behind her move to London, so her return to the old environment is one charged with tension and fraught with danger for a young officer taking such an important command.
The Bridgestocks’ knowledge of policing shines through as the investigation progresses, with Payback one of the most detailed police procedurals I think I have ever read. In the early stages of the story, it sometimes feels a little forced: Charley takes young rookie Annie Glover under her wing and teaches her the ins and outs of a murder investigation. It’s obvious that much of this is for the benefit of the reader and it sometimes feels a little off. That said, for novice crime readers, Payback is a one-stop shop for understanding how the British police conduct an investigation, while it can be slightly irritating for veterans of the genre. Around the halfway mark, this built-in lecturing style disappears, and the novel more or less finds its level, and challenges the reader to play detective alongside Charley and her team.
Charley is surrounded by an excellent cast of characters, from young Annie who idolises the older woman almost instantly, to the colleagues with whom she has worked before, and who are more or less happy to see her, depending on how well they got on with her before her move. Her Divisional Commander comes across as a slimy, old-fashioned “bent copper”, a brilliant characterisation that makes us cringe every time he appears on the page, while ex-boyfriend and smarmy local reporter Danny Ray is something of an enigma, and we only get glimpses into his character in flashes throughout the story.
The Bridgestocks manage to build an entire world around their characters, of which the ongoing murder investigation is but one piece of the puzzle. They also tackle weighty issues such as domestic violence and the #MeToo movement, police corruption and modern-day budget-led policing, and the often bigoted attitude towards members of the LGBTQ+ community in general, and transgender people in particular. All the while, they manage to give their story a wonderful sense of place, and introduce the reader to this little part of Yorkshire, through its people, its history and its folklore, which seem to be equally important to the area’s older inhabitants.
Payback is an excellent start to the Charley Mann series. While the early sections can be irritating for anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the crime fiction genre, it’s worth sticking with. Full of heart, this is very obviously a labour of love for the authors, and the reader picks up on that enthusiasm very quickly. What sets Payback apart from its contemporaries is Charley Mann herself, a character that gets inside our skin and stays with us long after the book has finished. An engaging and intelligent read, filled with characters that we feel we know, it’s an excellent start to this new series which, we can only but hope, will run for quite some time.