Review: Soft Summer Blood

Soft Summer Blood by Peter Helton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This soft-boiled police procedural introduced me to a very engaging team of characters, DI Liam McLusky, his sergeant James “Jane” Austin, and their colleagues DI Kat Fairfield and DS Jack Sorbie. The apparently “open and shut” murder that begins the story turns out to complicate itself nicely, though the identity of the true killer felt a bit unearned. The idea of the Fair-Play detective story, with strict rules of introducing all suspects and evidence in an orderly way, is hardly de rigeur nowadays. However, it does make a story less satisfying to me when the reveal seems to come out of the blue. Perhaps a more perceptive reader might pick up the thread early on. In any event, the plot winds up in a logical — though unsettling — solution that reverses our perceptions handily.

DI McLusky is an ambiguous character, sympathetic without being entirely likeable. He operates in the gray areas of his job, in a sort of slow-motion rebellion that often looks more like sloppiness than defiance. His story focuses more on his inner life and personal connection to the problem than on gritty details of policing.

That personal focus is well-balanced by Kat Fielding’s arc. While her approach to her assignment is very much fueled by her attitude to office politics and team dynamics, the author uses her storyline to reveal a wealth of fascinating details about modern policing and English life that I’ve never seen anywhere else. In contrast to McLusky’s case, I guessed the solution to Fielding’s assignment earlier on than I would have liked. But there’s more to a good book than the gamesmanship of the puzzle.

It’s impressive how the author takes a genre with conventions that tend toward tidy wrapups and pigeonholed characters, and uses setting, description, and relationships to create a less orderly, more realistic world. McLusky’s life and work are full of almosts and not-quites and if-onlys, just like mine. Just like yours too, I bet.

I’m intrigued to read back and see how DI McLusky got to this point. I also look forward to reading future McLusky stories, because he can’t go on as he is for long, and I want to see how that’s going to play out.

Recommended for mystery readers who like more realism than your average cozy, but stop short of hard-core grit.

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