The Puppet Show by M W Craven

Cumbria is in the grip of terror as a serial killer is stalking the countryside, torturing men and leaving their bodies ablaze in the centre of ancient stone circles. Seemingly motiveless, the police have no clue as to where the Immolation Man will strike next – until a deep computer scan of the third victim discovers a message carved into the flesh – “Washington Poe, 5”.

Washington Poe is a disgraced member of Cumbria CID, on leave, living alone in an isolated farmhouse. But the Immolation Man case drags him back to work with his former colleagues in a race against time. As the full horror of the case is revealed, it seems only Nerd Power can save the day…

Wow, that sounds grim, doesn’t it? In fact, I haven’t even mentioned one bit about the bodies – it involves removing one bit and sticking it into another bit – something that when I first read it (very early in the book) about nine months or so ago, I put the book down with a determination not to read that. Yuk.

But people on my twitter feed seem to rave about this one – in part due to the fact that I follow the author and most the raves are posts he’s retweeted – so when his second book appeared on Netgalley, I thought I’d take a look. And then I decided that as I do like to read books in series order, I’d brave the genitals-in-the-mouth bit and see what the fuss was about. I was wary – how many times have I read glowing reviews about books only to find them… well, okay I guess.

This is different.

It is, quite frankly, the best police procedural I have read in ages. Poe is a fascinating character, full of focused righteous anger, and his friendship with Tilly Bradshaw, a presumably-autistic (from her behaviour) computer geek, is beautifully written. Tilly is a genuinely original character is detective fiction – as a teacher, I’ve met a few Tilly’s in my career, and I loved the way that Poe automatically knows how to work with her, rather than having to be told how to do it. Their relationship feels so believable and gives a real heart to what could have been an extremely dark tale.

The motivations and actions of the Immolation Man are dark, yes, but there is a believably about his actions and the reader is left pondering what they would do in Poe’s position when confronted by the choices he has to make.

But this isn’t some sort of moral philosophy tale. It’s a beautifully plotted, perfectly paced thriller-mystery as well, and while it does fall into the trap of many a police procedural (which is basically what it is if I had to pigeon-hole it) of the killer being guessable by an old hand like me, I found that I didn’t care. Every seeming inconsistency is explained away perfectly. It’s like a jigsaw where you’ve got a piece of sky that won’t fit until you suddenly realise it’s a piece of sea instead.

It’s been a long time since I gushed so much about a book by an author who wasn’t called Brian. And I’ve got the second one to read very soon. I literally can’t wait – this is a brilliant book and has quite rightly been long-listed for the CWA Gold Dagger. Just grit your teeth through the bit about the testicles.*

* Just recalled that Paul Doherty wrote about a similar thing in one of the Brother Athelstan books, so I can’t complain about it really.

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