‘BIG, SICK HEART’ by Mike Markel

I read Book 2 in this series before reading this opening book, so I had already decided Mike Markel was a master of this genre. This book confirms it. What takes it beyond the usual, clever ‘are you as a reader astute enough to pick up the clues the writer has artfully woven into the proceedings as you move towards the eventual solving of a crime?’ is that the author is as interested in the struggle of his main character, Karen Seagate, to solve the problems that are messing up her life as he is in her solving the crime in question. The interplay of the two gives the book added depth. “More and more these days, I feel like I’m in some kind of a parallel universe that makes even less sense than the regular one.”

Karen’s marriage didn’t work out, as “apparently getting older wasn’t part of the deal.” She cares desperately about her unhappy son, Tommy, who is growing away from her since his father got custody. Drowning her sorrows in Jack Daniels has turned her into an alcoholic. She knows she’s a nuisance – to herself, to the people she deals with while solving the crime and to her Chief of Department. As Karen herself put it: “So few things in life are a hundred percent, but the chief is a total ***hole.” But then she does something unforgivably irresponsible and becomes life-threateningly toxic. I won’t tell you what. You have to read the book.

Her new partner, recently promoted from uniform, is a remarkably together, intelligent, decent young man who belongs to the Church of Latter Day Saints and is a black belt in Shotokan karate. Karen’s observation on this last fact exemplifies Mike Markel’s dry sense of humour: “I had no idea what flavor that was, but I knew the door and the frame were beyond repair.” Mr Markel can characterize a minor character in a choice detail: “Apparently, he was the kind of hotel manager who gets a call there’s been a death in his hotel and thinks, this outfit could really use a boutonnière.” He makes observations that call for real empathy: “It was more like she was incredibly weary, as if I was making her go someplace she didn’t want to go – because she went there all the time on her own.” He asks important questions: “And after you figure out who killed him, how do you forget about all the bad stories you heard along the way?”

I appreciated the way the author brought out the nitty gritty, one-step-at-a-time nature of a normal police investigation: the dogged pursuit of detail and the cross-checking of stories. He is meticulous in his inclusion of forensic detail, and convincingly knowledgeable about how police gather information not normally available to the rest of us. However, it is typical of Karen that she has scant regard for the rules that govern investigations, and if she sees a chance of rattling someone’s cage, she does it: “I was pretty sure this was the first time I’d lied to an archbishop. I lie to everyone; it’s what I do. I just don’t talk to a lot of archbishops.” That said, she’s brutally honest about her own problems, and not being anywhere near as good at solving them as she is solving murder mysteries: “I put the drink back on the end table. This was a first for me: shaking too much to drink. Better learn how to do it. One more life-skill to put on my to-do list, I thought, How am I doing? Sh***y, thanks, and you?”

There are so many more examples I could quote from this entertaining and engrossing series, but that should be enough to give you a flavour. I can’t think of a better way of getting through a 9/10-hour flight on a Thompson ‘Dreamliner’ between Manchester and Cancun!