Blackwater - James Henry ****
Initially, you wonder why James Henry would choose to mire Blackwater, the first of a new police procedural series, in 1983 rather than the present day. It doesn't seem like a good idea or a particularly interesting period, and - judging by the opening chapters - it just seems like an excuse to indulge in the sexism and office politics of a bygone age, with old-school investigation methods that involve threatening suspects and giving witnesses a good beating to help them refresh their memory. It's not as if those things don't still persist in the police force today, or at least can still be seen as a hangover from the past (see Billingham's DI Thorne series). In any case, it's hardly an attractive selling point for a new police/crime series, but there are other interesting aspects that gradually surface in Blackwater to suggest that this could still be a series worth following.
Certainly one of the most interesting features of Henry's new series is its use of Essex locations. Unlike the opening book of another recent new Essex based police series which was more interested in characterisation than location, Mark Hardie's Burned and Broken, Henry's Blackwater takes full advantage of landscape of the north Essex coastline and the investigation has everything to do with its tides, its salt marshes and mudflats, the remote nature of Mersea island, and the kind of characters who inhabit its local villages and pubs. In particular, in relation to the specifics of the case in Blackwater, there is also the proximity of the squaddies in Colchester and their sometimes troubled relationship with the locals.
Were it not for one of the soldiers being killed in what looks like an accidental fall after a dispute with some of the locals outside a pub, it might just be business as usual then; a case of too much drink being consumed and high spirits spilling over from the New Year celebrations. There are however too many other out of the ordinary incidents that have occurred around the same time; the armed robbery of a Post Office, a dismembered and headless body washed up by the high tides and some drug dealing that has led to the deaths of a couple of smugglers. Also personally troubling to Lowry is the suspicion that his errant wife seems to have let herself get mixed up in it during a drunken night-out with the girls.
James Henry, who has previously written three DI Frost prequels, seems to trade here on an awful lot of stock characters indulging in banal banter in a few unremarkable situations. Aside from the obligatory female officer, Gabriel, and the fresh wet behind the ears rookie, Kenton, the main character isn't particularly original either. Lowry is of a certain age where he feels it's time to grow up and move on. A clean-cut mod in his style and attitudes, Lowry would also have been a capable boxer in his day as a fighter for the police team. Nowadays, he's trying to give up smoking, put the boxing and the socialising side of the police behind him and take up an interest in birdwatching. The trouble is that neither his old-school boss Sparks nor his younger wife Jacqui are happy with Lowry's efforts to change his ways.
What is interesting about Lowry - and it's perhaps the key to understanding why Henry has chosen to set his new series in the 1980s - is that he reflects the conflict and the practical and personal difficulties that the police force themselves have to deal with in contemplating the realities of 'modernisation'. The world is changing and the police of this sleepy backwater have to wake up to that fact and deal with the shockwave it sends through the comfortable all-boy/old-boy system. Aside from having to recognise women police officers as having a role to play on the force, and even with a female Assistant Chief Constable giving people like Sparks an unpleasant run-around when he is used to conducting affairs in his own way, the whole business of crime and its investigation is also changing rapidly and adjustments have to be made.
What is interesting about this period of transition in policing methods to deal with a new reality is that it not only leaves lots of room for conflicts - both personal and professional - but there is ambiguity in the situations as well. The conflicts between the old-school and the modernisers are to be expected, as is the suspicion and misunderstandings that lie between male and female officers, but it's more than that. James Henry's view of the period is not exactly nostalgic for the old ways nor seeking to prove that the end justifies the means, but even if the methods and attitudes expressed in the 80s' workplace are unlikely to meet modern requirements for equality and diversity in the workplace, there is nonetheless a dynamic here that still has a way of getting results.
There doesn't seem to be anything particularly noteworthy about the case here nor even anything to be gained you would think from indulging in nostalgia for 80s crime drama. There's nothing either that would strike you as exceptional about the characterisation in Blackwater, much less the cliché-ridden dialogue (although it could be argued that Henry just has a good ear for the vernacular), but there is nonetheless a compulsion that keeps you reading and remaining hopeful for the development of the series. Partly it's to see how this case pulls together and is ultimately resolved, but mainly it's to do with how well the author manages to draw characters that fit in with their environment and surroundings while at the same time struggle to keep up with the times. The world is changing rapidly, the policing methods are trying to adapt, and there's a lot of room in the meantime for crime to worm its way through the cracks in-between.
Blackwater by James Henry is published by Quercus on 14 July 2016.
Blackwater - James Henry ****