|WATCHING FROM THE DARK
Michael Joseph (www.penguin.co.uk)
While Skyping his girlfriend late one evening, Aidan Poole watches as someone enters her apartment and apparently kills her while she is in the bath. He sends an email to the police providing them with as many details as he can. But he can’t provide them with the most important: Zoe’s address, so they can check that she is ok. When the call lands on DCI Jonah Sheens’ desk the following morning, something doesn’t feel right and, despite the fact that his team are flat out investigating a major blackmail case, he decides to follow up. When Zoe’s body is found in her bath, Aidan Poole is the first person Sheens wants to talk to, but Zoe’s seemingly perfect life, and the relationships with the people around her, aren’t always exactly what they seem.
Jonah Sheens and his team first appeared in Gytha Lodge’s 2019 debut, She Lies in Wait, which introduced not only the characters, but an excellent new voice in British police procedurals. With Watching from the Dark, Lodge proves that the characters, the voice, and her excellent procedurals have legs, and that Lodge and Sheens is a partnership that’s likely to be around for some time to come.
As with her debut, Watching from the Dark focuses very much on the details of the investigation: the legwork required to investigate a case; the hours of interviews, the volumes of documentation; the red tape that stands between the investigating team and a successful conviction and the constant pressure on the investigating team – and, in particular, the lead investigator – from higher up the chain, and from the public. Sounds boring, right? Far from it. Lodge’s characters are fully formed and never less than believable, and we find ourselves fully invested in them from the moment we meet them. Viewing the investigation through their eyes provides us with an in-depth look at the procedure, while never sacrificing the human element: the thrill of the chase, the disappointment when a suspect walks free or a lead fails to produce the desired result. We want Sheens to succeed, and so we experience the ups and downs along with him and his team.
In the death of Zoe Swardadine, Gytha Lodge presents us with an excellent puzzle that gets our brain working, and keeps us guessing until the final reveal. We know what we’ve seen through the eyes of Aidan Poole: someone entered her apartment, managing to avoid the Skype camera and seemingly murdered the young lady in the bath while her boyfriend watched an empty screen and heard the sounds of struggle off-camera. Aidan Poole himself presents something of an enigma: he’s a married man seemingly involved with Zoe, despite the fact that he doesn’t know where she lives, or that all of Zoe’s friends are convinced that the pair are no longer together. Within the circle of friends, Sheens encounters a handful of potential suspects, including a jealous friend suffering the pangs of unrequited love, and an older man who seems to have designs on the younger woman and who isn’t quite what he initially seems.
The story alternates between the present day, and various points in time over the past year and a half, as we get to know Zoe, and the group of people with whom she surrounds herself. In the present day, Lodge develops the returning characters from the first book: Sheens, Hanson, Lightman and O’Malley, the intrepid investigative team tasked with finding the truth behind Zoe’s death. These are characters we care about, characters whose company we enjoyed in She Lies in Wait, and who we’re glad to see back for another brief visit (and, let’s face it, who we’re already looking forward to spending more time with should a book three make an appearance). Their humanity is an important factor in what makes us want to spend time with them, and Lodge perfectly manages the balancing act between giving us enough to help us understand who these people are, and keeping the suspense alive, and the story moving forwards at all times.
Cementing her position as one of Britain’s finest crime writers, and a master of the police procedural, Gytha Lodge’s Watching from the Dark is a welcome return for DCI Jonah Sheens. Slick plotting, cleverly-constructed mysteries and believable, identifiable characters combine to produce an excellent addition to Lodge’s nascent canon and one of the best murder mysteries you’re likely to read this year. If you’ve read She Lies in Wait, then you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t, now is a good time to discover this excellent author before you have too much catching up to do.