Stephen Kelly, swooping into a new career after some 30 years as a journalist, gives us a debut crime novel of intricacy and depth. Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Lamb, struggling with small wartime deprivations of coffee, jam, and eggs in the rural Hampshire area of England in 1940, is well aware that he's fortunate to be too old -- and too "essentially employed" -- for the armed forces. Lamb shields his wife Marjorie as much as possible from the daily horrors of his job. So when he's called to investigate the murder of Will Blackstone in the nearby village of Quimby, and learns the victim was rumored to be a witch, he merely tells his wife he has to go out because someone has killed an old man. To her question on what's happened, he summarizes quietly: "The usual thing, I'm afraid," he said. "He probably quarreled with somebody."
But Blackstone's death is only the first of a stunning sequence around the village, all somehow related: by method, and sometimes by small drawings contributed by a young local man whose skill in art is equaled by his silence and shyness, perhaps due to something like autism spectrum disorder.
And the wartime stresses, the constant stream of able men into the army and navy, has left Lamb short of investigative manpower. Still, the last thing he expects or wants is the arrival of DI Harry Rivers to assist. Rivers, it turns out, has an enduring resentment toward Lamb, left over from their service together in the preceding war. It's a dark, bitter anger that's likely to poison the work they'll have to do together.
Early reviews compared THE LANGUAGE OF THE DEAD to Charles Todd's books, but a better match (across gender but accurate to the themes) would be to those of Jacqueline Winspear. Lamb isn't mentally out of adjustment in any sense, but rather is both kind and direct, with a drive to do his work well and lead his team adeptly. He has none of the deep psychic wounds of Todd's Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge. Even his earlier war service -- although his new team member won't admit it -- was straightforward, necessary, and courageous. He has nothing to be ashamed of, unless it's his own shock at how terrible the world can be. Even his newly grown daughter Vera seems less naive at times than he is, which Lamb himself realizes.
The setting is rich with farms, traditions, and folklore. But the darkness propelling the sequence of deaths, as Lamb probes the crimes, gradually comes into focus, and with it, so does the level of risk to Lamb and his associates (even his family).
If there's any sign of "first book" here, it could be the way the tangles of the plot call for Lamb himself to explain the twists to his men near the end of the book. But an astute reader will have followed his reasoning and be most of the way to the investigation's solution and the book's resolution. A highly satisfying conclusion wraps up THE LANGUAGE OF THE DEAD, and there's good reason to hope that Pegasus Crime will follow up with a sequel from Stephen Kelly. Since this one's a debut, collectors will want to catch a copy in first printing -- take action now, as the book was released on April 15.