The Embalmer

Written by Alison Belsham

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 Embalmer
RRP: £14.99
Released: November 12 2020

Mummification: proceeding on the lines of a cook book this novel starts with a recipe for embalming. The requirements: a cadaver, preservatives, specialised implements. Exact quantities of fluids are listed followed by guidance in the manipulation of a curved iron hook. The detail is scrupulous.

A word picture of the embalmer comes next: a psychopath with a bifurcated tongue, who hisses, and whose goal is godhood, to be achieved by human sacrifice. His identity is a mystery but there is none about his modus operandi constantly recalled throughout the book by way of italicised intrusions.

The setting is Brighton, a new city where, in a small forgotten museum, a new mummy is found in a dusty case, swaddled in fresh linen, its stomach in a jar beside it. Remains and body are found to be those of the museum’s director, and the local CID is faced with a kind of crime that escalates exponentially. Action starting with a “domestic” ends with a serial killer.

 On the side of the angels is a swarm of cops that reduces quickly to the principals: Francis, the DI, an educated maverick at odds with his boss and with Rory, the sergeant he beat in the promotion stakes. Indiscreet and passionate, Francis is embroiled with Marnie, a tattoo artist.  Gavin is a new DC, an ambitious young man comfortable in his own skin and happy in a home life with his husband, Harry. Like the cops the townies are colourful. The Press is represented by Fitz, a louche leech on the Brighton Argus. The museum staff are nervous and quarrelsome; entrepreneurs are dodgy. It would have been too easy, given such a cosmopolitan town with its welter of cultures and genres, to produce caricatures but in the view of one who was born and bred in the place, they ring true. Belsham’s characters don’t have a lot of depth but they fit their environment.

With such a ghastly MO in the background and a rising body count it seems superfluous to introduce further interest but there is a parallel plot running, and this one is all action and violence with few forensics. While Francis’s bugbear, Rory, the DS, is in charge of the mummy case and subsequent murders, Francis himself is concerned with the fate of his friend Marnie, the prime suspect in the murder of her own husband. Getting her out of jail and apprehending the real killer preoccupies Francis while at the same time he becomes involved in Rory’s serial murders.

It’s a big book with a lot going on. Go with the flow. As in TV serials there’s a deal of repetition, the story lines taken up by different characters, not forgetting the embalmer himself. The city is the constant background, its past and present. There are echoes of faded glory:  peeling wallpaper in the Pavilion’s grandiose halls; the sweeping Regency crescents are now blocks of rented flats, the narrow Lanes awash with tourists - all existing cheek by jowl with an ancient cult gone wrong, with catch-up policing and advanced technology, the latest example of which being geocoding: the final clue that leads to the iconic observation tower, 150 metres tall, where Francis goes to meet his quarry in the champagne bar.

The research is mind-boggling (cryptologists will find the decoding of whole-body tattoos a fascinating exercise) and if the intricacies of disemboweling are distasteful, they may be skipped.  The rest is cool.  Bizarre and brash, like its setting, this novel is a memorable mix of place and time garnished with horror.

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