A MATTER OF TIME
Claire Askew (claireaskew.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)
At 8am, a man opens fire with a shotgun at an agricultural show in Scotland’s Borders region. Either he’s a poor shot, or he has been aiming deliberately to minimise casualties. Then he’s in the wind. By lunchtime he’s holed up in a remote ruin, he has a hostage, and he will only deal with Edinburgh’s DI Helen Birch. What follows is the most frightening, most intense day in Helen Birch’s life, as she tries to talk the man down, alone despite the troops that surround the ruin, unarmed, and with no training on how to negotiate with a gunman, let alone one that is holding hostages. When the sun rises the following morning it will be all over, but who will survive the long, cold night?
A Matter of Time is Claire Askew’s fourth DI Helen Birch novel, but it works well as a standalone. Sure, there are callouts to events that are obviously covered in earlier books in the series that will give readers a more complete sense of who Helen Birch is, and what she’s been through, but Askew has done a great job of summarising what we need to know if, like me, you’re joining late: her criminal brother (and her ongoing relationship with his lawyer); her fraught relationship with her father; and fleeting details of an earlier crime that will have a direct bearing on her behaviour here. I’m not a big fan of jumping into series partway through, but this volume feels designed to accommodate exactly that.
Playing out in real time, the novel covers a 24-hour period from the first shots are fired until Birch’s negotiations come to their dramatic conclusion. This brings with it an added sense of tension, and a just-one-more-chapter feel that will ensure readers fly through the story. The man at the centre of events, Gerald Hodgson, has spent time in prison – though it’s not until later that we find out exactly why – and it seems his latest shooting spree might be directly related. Askew uses Hodgson, who drives livestock trucks, to examine one of UK farming’s darkest hours, a time that would have affected rural communities – like the small Borders town where Birch finds herself – disproportionately: the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak that saw entire farms wiped out in one fell swoop, for no more reason than neighbouring a farm where a single case was discovered. Hodgson’s role, and the reason for his incarceration, is a fascinating one and reminds us – in a time where it certainly doesn’t do any harm – that the decisions our governments make are rarely in the interest of the greater good, and almost never made by people who understand the situation on the ground.
Politics aside, Askew does an excellent job of making Hodgson real and helping us empathise with his situation. Birch herself comes across as a deeply flawed character carrying around her own troop of demons, a person trying to do her best despite the myriad problems that plague her private life, and the scars left behind by previous cases. A Matter of Time gives a glimpse into the workings of Police Scotland, and how the various different divisions interact, but without ever losing focus on what’s important: an interesting story, and realistic characters, designed to suck the reader in from the word go and keep them engaged throughout.
A Matter of Time is an excellent police procedural, whose real-time narrative works well within the confines of the written word. It’s tightly plotted but also full of heart, filled with people we can identify with, regardless of which side of the law they’re on. An easy jumping-on point for new readers, it obviously builds on the foundation of the three books that have come before it, so returning readers will have a different view of events than those of us meeting Helen Birch for the first time. An excellent way to spend a couple of days, it has left me with a desire to see where Birch goes next. Consider Claire Askew added to my must-read list. Give A Matter of Time a shot, and she’ll very quickly end up on yours, too.