Yellowhammer by James Henry

The Blurb On The Back:

July 1983, Essex.  Fox Farm is, thanks to two corpses, neither picturesque nor peaceful. The body in its kitchen belongs to eminent historian Christopher Cliff, who has taken his own life with an antique shotgun.  The second, found on the property boundary, remains unidentified.

DI Nick Lowry’s summer is neither sleepy nor serene. And the two deaths are just the half of it.  The fact County Chief Merrydown was a college friend of Cliff’s means Lowry is now, in turn, under scrutiny from his severely stressed and singularly unsympathetic boss, Sparks.

To catalyse his investigation, Lowry enlists the services of DC Daniel Kenton and WPC Jane Gabriel.  Gabriel needs direction, if she is to begin a career as a detective.  While Kenton, who appears solely focused on beginning a relationship with Gabriel, needs distraction.

Both the heat and the investigation soon intensify. The team find themselves interrogating enigmatic neighbours, shady businessmen, jilted lovers and wronged relatives; all the while negotiating the caprices of Sparks – whose attitudes remain as dated as Fox Farm’s antiques.

Only when they fully open their eyes and minds will they begin to see a web of rural politics, dodgy dealings and fragmented families – one that they must unpick before it ensnares them.  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 25thJuly 1983, 6 months after the events in BLACKWATER.  Since the break-up of his marriage with Jacqui following the revelation of her affair, DI Nick Lowry’s resolutions for the year have not gone well – he’s smoking again and his boss, DCS Sparks has persuaded him to re-join the police boxing team – although he has also pursued his interest in bird-watching by joining a local ornithological society.  He has also been drinking more and the dents in his car have led to concern at the station that he’ll have a serious accident.

When Lowry is called out to Fox Farm, he’s surprised to find Sparks already there but then the death of eminent TV historian Christopher Cliff is bound to attract media attention and it doesn’t help that Cliff was a university friend of ACC Merrydown and she’s taking a personal interest in the case.  To Lowry it seems to be a straightforward suicide – Cliff having shot himself with his own gun – but the case is complicated by the discovery of the decapitated body of an unidentified man near the train tracks that run along the back of the farm.

Lowry and DC Kenton set about trying to identify the unknown man while unpicking Cliff’s life, his marriage with Suzanne (an artist), her three daughters Lucy (15), Alice (13) and Emma (6), drawing on information from their neighbour Katherine Everett (a local teacher who knows the children).  Merrydown pushes for her niece, WPC Jane Gabriel to be seconded to CID, which perks up Kenton who is still trying to pursue a relationship with her but Gabriel isn’t sure that she’s really interested in a career in detection and besides, she has her own case to deal with – an elderly woman in a picturesque cottage is convinced that someone is moving her things around …

The second in James Henry’s DI LOWRY SERIES is a disappointing historical crime novel that fails to build on the promise of the first novel with a plodding central mystery that takes an abrupt turn about half way through and gets bogged down in Lowry’s marriage break up (with Jacqui in particular losing a lot of her nuanced characterisation) and Kenton’s pursuit of Gabriel such that I’m not sure I’d rush to read the next in the series.

A big reason for my disappointment with this book is that all the subtlety in the characterisation of Lowry and his perceptions of his marriage with Jacqui have gone here.  We don’t see the immediate aftermath of the revelation of Jacqui’s affair and it’s compounded by the fact that Henry doesn’t put them together on the page until late in the story so they’re stuck exploring their own feelings in monologue or in Jacqui’s case, bizarrely by getting Sparks involved (which didn’t convince me).  Jacqui in particular loses a lot of nuance here with Henry depicting her more as a scheming villainess who manipulates Sparks and Lowry for her own ends because she’s not happy with where her life is.  In addition Lowry is oddly passive and spends a lot of the book missing his wife but not confronting how he actually feels, with Henry using the tired set up of a blind date as a way for him to work through his feelings.

Also disappointing is the move to make Sparks face the prospect of fatherhood as his much younger wife Antonia is pregnant and he doesn’t know how to deal with it.  Although I like Antonia as a character and would like to see more of her in future books because of the way she doesn’t tolerate Sparks and his chauvinism, Sparks’s storyline is very much midlife crisis territory that I felt that I’d seen before.  I am equally jaded about Kenton and Gabriel’s ponderous relationship, which wasn’t helped by a silly storyline about Kenton taking up windsurfing and seeking to impress her or by Henry hinting at a potential love triangle with Lowry.

The central mystery itself starts off strong with Cliff’s nephew discovering the headless corpse at the same time as hearing the gunshot kill his uncle.  However the pacing is slow and it’s not helped by the fact that half-way through the book the plot takes a sudden turn as a killer makes an unexpected confession such that the plot suddenly jumps forward, which for me took away a lot of the momentum and stopped me from caring about the resolution, especially the later twists.

Henry is still strong on period detail and he does well at depicting the growing heat of the summer and in the changing nature of the countryside and the desire to make money and there are a couple of interesting characters here with potential to return – notably Roger Derrick, a dodgy antiques dealer, but I’m really not sure if I’m going to continue with this series given how predictable and disappointing it was.

YELLOWHAMMER was released in the United Kingdom on 26th July 2018.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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