Dead Ground (2021) by M W Craven

Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig walk into a bank vault – the man wearing the Roger Moore mask was in the car keeping the engine running – but nothing was stolen. An empty safe deposit box was opened, a ceramic rat was left in the box – oh, and Sean Connery shot Timothy Dalton in the back of the head.

A couple of years later, Detective Sergeant Washington Poe and his partner Tilly Bradshaw are dragged out of a court hearing on the future of his home to the scene of a murder. A man beaten to death in a backstreet brothel hardly seems to be the concern of the National Crime Agency’s Serious Crime Analysis Section, but Poe has been asked for specially. And once he starts digging into the death, it becomes clear this is no random crime. Somebody has a plan, a plan that has long been in place and is far, far from over.

I’ve mentioned a few times recently how things are pretty hectic chez Puzzle Doctor at the moment, primarily due to being a teacher and being screwed over by the government over setting end of year examinations for our exam candidates – namely, the exam boards have asked us to set our own papers with no secure resources to use. And Mathematics, as you might imagine, takes a while – I can’t just write an exam saying “Algebra rules. Discuss.” I’ve been reading a lot of Brian Flynn for the introductions for books 21 to 30, but that’s sort of work – while I’m really enjoying the books, there’s something about reading with a notepad in the other hand that takes the fun out of it. Hence my post on “Things to Come” the other day. It consisted of eight Golden Age titles and two modern ones, of which this, the fourth Washington Poe title (now apparently a “Poe and Bradshaw” thriller).

I think it’s fair to say that the “Poe & Bradshaw” series is my favourite modern series by some distance – the “Avison Fluke” books by some bloke called M W Craven come pretty close. I find it interesting that in the afterword, Craven does mention that The Puppet Show came out of some original ideas for Fluke book 3. I’d guessed as much as there are some similarities between the lead – his living arrangements, for example. Readers of those books will be interested to see that Fluke and a couple of other characters do get a mention here, as having been around Cumbria in the past and one minor character (if I’m remembering him right) does make an actual appearance. I wonder… might Avison actually show up again at some point. I doubt, given the success of this series, that a full-blown Fluke tale will materialise, but it’s nice to know he hasn’t been forgotten about.

Oh, and I’d take a bit of an issue with billing this as a thriller. It is, I suppose, but there is a decent mystery structure here as well, verging on the classic. We follow Poe’s investigation from his point of view throughout the tale, and while Tilly have the technical expertise, it is Poe who is the deductive genius here, along with a fine line of sarcastic wit. I think I’ve mentioned before the fine work Craven does with Tilly – it could be very easy to make her the nerd who’s the butt of all the jokes, but while occasionally her intellectual prowess does border on the superhuman, she comes across as a real person and her friendship with Poe feels honest and believable.

The plot twists all over the place, with a well-timed drip-release of information, often posing more questions, rather than providing immediate answers. Every time the reader gets a feel for the shape of the plot and the people who might be behind it, Craven shifts things, pointing out something that doesn’t fit with Poe’s current theory and bringing in new information. The book is the very definition of a page-turner, and it contains that one thing that mystery readers love.

From a certain point, I knew who the villain behind everything was, and I thought I was being clever. I wasn’t, I was looking in exactly the direction I was supposed to be looking in, namely the wrong one. The author suckered me good and proper, I missed the bit that didn’t make sense and while possibly the information necessary to identify the actual bad guy may not have been there – hardly unique for a mystery/thriller – it made perfect sense.

It’s rare that I can’t find a thing to criticise in a book (nitpicking a typo in Avogadro’s constant really doesn’t count), but there really isn’t anything I can take issue with. Dead Ground is another outstanding book in an outstanding series.

Dead Ground is out in hardback, ebook and audiobook next Thursday, June 6th, and as you just might have guessed, gets my highest recommendation.

Many thanks to Mike Craven for the review copy.

Other M W Craven reviews:

Poe & Bradshaw

Avison Fluke

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