The Devil's Claw

Written by Lara Dearman

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

The Devil's Claw
RRP: £7.99
Released: November 30 2017

Don’t be shocked on seeing the name of the killer on the back cover; ‘Fritz’ is an alias, and his given background correct as far as it goes but misleading; there was more than one half-German baby born in the Channel Islands in the 1940s. Moreover it’s not unusual for such children to be assimilated into the host country once it is freed from enemy occupation. So it was on Guernsey where ‘Fritz‘ survived childhood bullying, learned how to socialise with his peers as an adolescent - and subsequently dropped out of sight, leaving us, his readers, only his private record of an increasingly confused inner life, a life obsessed by the Occult and the compulsion to save beautiful blondes from the depravity of a world in thrall to the Devil.

In this novel Guernsey is depicted as a rather dull little island, at 24 square miles too small for its 60,000 inhabitants, a tourist trap in summer, dead in winter. The local paper is monopolized by parochial matters, its youngest reporter, Jenny Dorey, island-born and bred, already regretting having left a good job in London despite her being forced to return home when she got too close to dangerous people-traffickers. So Jenny is on hand when a blonde teen-ager is washed up on Guernsey’s shore: fully clothed, apparently unmolested and unmarked except for scratches like claw marks on her arms.  The police dismiss the marks as self-inflicted but Jenny has doubts, and these are intensified when a guy is found in the woods: an effigy crudely made-up but carefully dressed and be-wigged to resemble the dead girl, even to the claw marks on its arm.

Jenny is a budding investigative reporter, ambitious but compassionate, empathy and curiosity driving her to explore the victim’s background, exposing her life by careful interviews with her family, friends and other contacts.  It’s not surprising that in such a close community delving into the life of the last drowned girl should lead to consideration of her predecessors. Over fifty years there have been too many drowned blonde teen-agers to be coincidences, and yet the verdict was invariably suicide or accident. But as Jenny’s suspicions take form the possibility of connections between at least some of the deaths, even of foul play, hint at a scenario that proves too much for the editor of a small local paper to handle. Jenny is told to drop the story and to concentrate on domestic issues.

But this reporter has an ally in the police chief. DCI Michael Gilbert is close to retirement; widowed and drinking too much, a good man, twice bereft having recently lost his daughter, the last spark in an intelligent mind is kindled by this lively young woman who, to some extent, can fill the void left by his family. Having been in the police force when other girls were drowned, having had his own suspicions, he is receptive to Jenny’s burgeoning theory. The pair form a team: an informal investigation that leads first to the belief that a serial killer has been at work on the island for half a century, then homing in on suspects. If the theory is correct these have to be in late middle-age, even elderly, and in a population of 60,000, there has to be a fair number of elderly men. There is the choir master, the retired police chief, the editor; there is even Michael himself. There are innumerable others hiding in plain sight.

Unhappy men are questioned. Blackmail and bribery lead to the exposure of a paedophile, to police officers at least negligent, at most corrupt and all criminal, but is any one of these a killer?  Suspense is racked up. A girl is taken, kidnapped, and Jenny summoned to confront the man who started life as a bastard called Fritz and ends a pillar of the community and a psychopath.

Neatly structured, plenty of background; characterisation basically rounded but the whole leaving one with the impression of an expanded exercise rather than an absorbing read. A debut novel, the author trying too hard rather than letting things flow.

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