THE COLOURS OF DEATH
Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)
A man is dead in a stationary train in Lisbon’s Gare do Oriente, apparently having beaten himself to death on the train’s door. When Inspector Isabel Reis arrives on the scene, witnesses claim that he didn’t kill himself voluntarily. The man is Gil dos Santos, head of Portugal’s National Testing Institute and as Isabel, one of the Gifted, investigates his death, she discovers that he has been involved in shady experiments, some of which seem designed to weaponise those like her who have been born with special abilities. The results of these experiments bring into question everything that Isabel thought she knew about her Gift, and leaves no doubt that there’s a very dangerous person on the loose who seems to bear a grudge against a significant portion of Lisbon’s population.
Welcome to Patricia Marques’ modern-day Lisbon. It’s a world very like our own, with one small difference: a portion of the population are classified as Gifted – having either telepathic or telekinetic abilities – and ranked on a scale from one to ten. The higher the number, the more powerful the Gift – or Curse, as most seem to consider it – with anyone ranked eight or above taken off the streets by government decree for the safety of themselves and others. Marques is not content to examine this phenomenon at a distance, instead integrating Gifted into the Polícia Judiciária where, partnered with Regulars – they serve like any other police officer; and by putting us inside the head of one such character as she introduces us to this world through the eyes of Isabel Reis.
While The Colours of Death is, technically, a police procedural with a science-fiction twist, the introduction of the Gift to the world allows the author to examine prejudice through the lens of Gifted versus Regulars. With the introduction of Bento Soares, a politician with a militant anti-Gifted rhetoric, Marques holds a mirror up to humanity in general and the sudden global shift to the political right in particular. This is a character we’ve seen on the news, spewing their message of hate, and serves to make the setting and the subject matter much more immediate and grounded in reality for the reader. There’s a touch of the dystopia about Marques’ Lisbon, but swap the Gift for race or religion or wealth, and it’s a dystopia that is, sadly, all-too-plausible in the current global political climate.
Like the city itself, which plays an important part in the story and serves to give us a sense of place (not to mention a possible destination when we’re all allowed to fly again), the politics is something that lurks, ever-present, in the background, allowing author and reader to focus on the main story: the grisly death of Gil dos Santos and the investigation that ensues. Isabel is a gruff, tough-nosed detective who is used to working on her own. For this investigation, though, she finds herself partnered with Aleksandr Voronov, who has a reputation for being anti-Gifted. As the investigation progresses, the relationship grows (early hints of sexual tension quickly discarded) and the pair get to know each other, and to understand who they are. Isabel is surrounded by a solid team, both Gifted and Regular, which keeps her sane on top of the work-related support they provide. As well as being an excellent stand alone mystery, there’s also a lot of work going into setup here. There is definitely a market for Isabel and company to return – not least because Lisbon is a sorely-neglected location in crime fiction – but only time will tell if the Gift has the legs to carry a series so that it doesn’t devolve into just another detective series, indistinguishable from a thousand other ongoing properties.
The Colours of Death is a solid mystery, well-plotted and beautifully-written. It’s an introduction to a likeable protagonist who is different enough to stand out in a crowded field, and a setting that is somewhere we will want to visit again. Patricia Marques is an accomplished storyteller who knows how to hold our attention, and keep us guessing throughout. Unmissable crime fiction that will appeal to a broad readership; just don’t let the science fiction element put you off what will surely be one of the best mysteries you’ll read this year. This reader can’t wait for more.