Blackwater by James Henry

The Blurb On The Back:

January 1983, Colchester CID

A new year brings new resolutions for Detective Inspector Nicholas Lowry. With one eye on his approaching fortieth birthday, he has given up his two greatest vices: smoking, and the police boxing team. As a result, the largest remaining threat to his health is now his junior colleague’s reckless driving.

If Detective Constable Daniel Kenton’s orange sports convertible is symbolic of his fast track through the ranks, then his accompanying swagger, foppish hairstyle and university education only augment his uniqueness in the department. Yet regardless of this, it is not DC Kenton who is turning station heads.

WPC Jane Gabriel is the newest police recruit in Britain’s oldest recorded town. Despite a familial tie to top brass, Gabriel’s striking beauty and profound youth have landed her with two obstacles: a young male colleague who gives her too much attention, and an older one who acts like she’s not there.

January 1983, Blackwater Estuary

A new year brings a new danger to the Essex shoreline. An illicit shipment, bound for Colchester – 100 kilograms of power that will frantically accelerate tensions in the historic town, and leave its own murderous trace.

Lowry, Kenton and Gabriel must now develop a tolerance to one another, and show their own substance, to save Britain’s oldest settlement from a new, unsettling enemy. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 1st January 1983 and 39-year-old DI Nick Lowry has decided on his resolutions: he’s going to give up smoking, quit the police boxing team (which is going to disappoint his boss, DCS Stephen Sparks, an old school copper who believes that the regular boxing matches with the local army garrison are good for community relations) and take up ornithology as he’s always been fascinated by birds but his tough upbringing meant he never dared do anything about it.

Lowry’s on duty in Colchester CID with DC Daniel Kenton (a university graduate who’s marked for the fast track as the police attempt to modernise) when a call comes in that a headless body has been found on the causeway between the mainland and the island of Mersea. Meanwhile DCS Sparks is trying to smooth things over with the commander of the local army base following the accidental death of a soldier following an altercation in town, which has drawn the attention of Assistant Chief Constable Merrydown who seems to disapprove of his old-fashioned ways and whose niece, Jane Gabriel has recently joined the Colchester police as a WPC after working as a model.

As the investigation continues, Lowry and Kenton’s paths cross with Gabriel’s and with smuggler Jason Boyd whose attempts to bring 100kgs of cocaine into the country with his friend Felix have not been going as planned …

The first in a historical crime series by James Henry (a pseudonym for James Gurbutt) is an intriguing affair set in a period of change for the UK police force. Lowry is an interesting protagonist (oblivious of the issues in his home life while confronting the notion of masculinity) and although Kenton and Gabriel are more thinly characterised, the mystery neatly unfolds to draw its various plot strands together in a satisfying way.

The main reason to read the book is DI Lowry, who I found to be an interesting character that I wanted to know more about. At 39-years-old he’s come to a crossroads in his life and having lived his life in accordance with the expectations placed upon him as a man (in part due to his harsh upbringing and partly because of the hyper-masculine culture within the police force), he’s finally starting to work out what he wants (although Henry does well in showing how he is still alert to how others will view his preferred hobby of bird watching). Henry does well in showing Lowry’s complacency within his marriage and how his view contrasts with that of his wife, Jacqui (a nurse who wants something more and dislikes how taciturn Nick is and who has started an affair with a doctor for the thrill it gives her) and how he’s also oblivious to the difficulties his son Matt is clearly experiencing at school.

Henry also does well at contrasting Lowry with the old-school Sparks (a go-with-his gut cop from the old school) and young graduate Kenton (whose sports car and bad driving form some of the humour). It’s therefore a shame that Kenton is slightly two-dimensional in terms of his depiction – young, eager to please and advance and hyper-aware of how his long hair and ‘girly’ sports car is viewed among the ‘real men’ of the squad. I was also a little disappointed with the depiction of Gabriel, whose beauty and uncertainty are the only real things that come across on the page and who seems to be there to set up a potential love triangle with Lowry and Kenton. This is particularly disappointing given that Jacqui is much more nuanced in terms of her frustration and selfishness but also her continued affection for her husband even as she wants more from life and her marriage.

The period is well depicted – this is a strutting Britain basking in the success of the Falklands War and Colchester, with its historic barracks, puts military firmly against civilian life (as highlighted in the rivalry between Sparks and the Brigadier). Henry does overegg some of the references (notably the music and famous advertising campaigns) but for the most part I did believe in it precisely because he’s got the attitudes down right – from Sparks’s discomfort in knowing how to act around a female superior to Gabriel’s distaste for the laddish behaviour in the station.

The plot itself is well constructed with Henry setting up a narrative line shown from the perspective of would-be smugglers Jace and Felix whose year starts of badly and gets steadily worse and draws in the murder plot and soldier’s death in a way that had me completely engrossed. I was particularly impressed with the way he folds in Jacqui’s storyline so that she is more than just a commentary on Lowry and his character.

All in all, I found this an enjoyable read with plenty here to make me want to read the sequel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s