Friday, 22 January 2016

Human Rites by JJ Marsh

ReviewerAnne Stormont

What We Thought: The latest book in JJ Marsh’s series of European based crime thrillers features Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Beatrice Stubbs. It had a lot to live up to in terms of my expectations as I’ve read and very much enjoyed the three previous books. It didn’t disappoint.

Beautifully described and fascinating settings, compelling, suspenseful and twisting plotlines and a cast of wonderful characters both familiar and new. You don’t have to have read the earlier books in order to follow this one. Like the rest, this also works as a standalone, but it is nice to be re-united with characters you’ve become fond of.

Beatrice’s old friend and neighbour, Adrian, is back, as is his now-ex lover Holger. Her grumpy boss Hamilton and her not-living-together yet partner Matthew also feature once more. However, some captivating new characters appear. What’s not to love about the septuagenarian art expert, Frau Professor Eichhorn who has a Howard Jones hairstyle and wears a red coat and black boots? Hairy and adorable Daan and his crazy husky, Mink. Catinca, Adrian’s new assistant in his wine shop, described as Bow Bells meets Bucharest makes a disproportionately big impression considering her short amount of page time. Likewise Tomas, the socially awkward, computer data-analyst member of the German police team is a minor but memorable character. And what a wonder is the tastily handsome, but also nuanced and layered, character of German Detective Jan Stein.

The plot has two main strands. The criminal investigation requires D.I. Stubbs to leave her London base and travel to Europe to work on a series of art thefts in London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Hamburg. These aggravated burglaries are efficiently organised and co-ordinated, and also target a very specific form of German Expressionist art.

The other unrelated problem is a possibly malevolent stalker threatening Adrian, one of Beatrice’s closest friends. By getting away from the stress and fear of the situation, he hopes he can regain some perspective. These two storylines provide a good balance. There’s the logic, control and rationality of the police investigation with its insights into the methods and teamwork employed. And alongside there’s the fear, suspense, suspicion and twists of the stalking situation.

The action takes place mainly in Hamburg and on the island of Sylt, just off Germany’s north-western tip. Hamburg in the December snow, with its wide streets, its waterways and bridges, and its spires, museums and galleries is so beautifully described that I’ve now added it to my ‘cities to visit’ list. And, there’s one moment when the sighting of a sinister figure against this backdrop recalled for me the mysterious appearances of the small, red-hooded figure in Venice in the Daphne du Maurier story Don’t Look Now.

The island of Sylt is vividly presented as a beautiful but remote and windswept place, the perfect location in which to isolate a character in potential danger. Woven throughout the action there are small but significant moments of introspection such as when Beatrice reflects on her bipolar condition via the concept of an ‘inner pigdog’ (yes, you read that right), or contemplates her approaching retirement from the police force and finally settling down to live with her partner. Some moments are unexpectedly poignant––one in particular stands out as unexpected but affecting. And the issues raised by the characters, their motivations and situations, also cause the reader to reflect on friendship, compassion and love, on the facts of ageing and mortality, but also on greed, obsession and hatred.

And finally, as an already smitten fan of Beatrice Stubbs, I was delighted to see several new Beatricisms. I counted six instances of her taking a well known saying and mangling it to great comic effect – for example ‘no more exciting than watching pants dry’. And I also learned two new words––imbiss which is a German word meaning snack and sphenisciphobia which is the fear of nuns or penguins. Who knew? Not me.
But what I do know is that Human Rites is a first class novel and is in the running for my favourite read of 2015.

Type of read: Glass or two of Barolo or other quality red wine to hand, curtains drawn against the wet, windy night, log fire, comfy chair and dog curled up at your feet. Relax in the lamplight and enjoy!

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon

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