The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham

The Strange Death of Fiona GriffithsThe Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths

by Harry Bingham
Series: Fiona Griffiths, #3

Kindle Edition, 470 pg.
Sheep Street Books, 2015

Read: February 16 – 17, 2018


From the instant that it was mentioned in Love Story, With Murders that Fi Griffiths had signed up for a course in Undercover work, every reader knew that she’d end up doing some deep undercover work soon. Thankfully, Bingham didn’t make us wait too long because here comes both the course and the assignment. But before we get to the assignment, Fi gets this wonderful reality check after her course:

I’m tasked to process paperwork on a couple of cases that are coming to court. Someone assigns me to help on a team that is developing advice on how to avoid thefts from vehicles. The first of our meetings takes an hour and forty minutes and the gist of our advice will be, ‘Lock your car and hide your valuables.’ Or, to simplify further, ‘Don’t be a bloody idiot.’

I suggest that as a slogan and everyone looks at me.

I just loved that. Anyway, this seems like a perfect idea — there’s a real sense in which everyday life is an undercover assignment for Fi, letting her do it as part of her job seems like a no-brainer. Not that her superiors really understand that, but her readers do.

The case started off as a simple payroll fraud investigation — a clever and ambitious fraud, make no mistake, but not the kind of things that excites any police detective (especially one like Fi). But then, she ties one suspicious death into this crime — and then a particularly gruesome murder as well. These discoveries are enough to get The Powers That Be to take this seriously enough to put Fi and another officer undercover as payroll clerks to infiltrate this scheme. Eventually, Fi is recruited by the people they’d hoped recruit her and the game is afoot. Fi does things that will surprise the reader as much as they do to her targets in her efforts to bring some justice to the situation.

At some point, Fi is going over the results of her work thus far with our friend, DCI Jackson, and her handler from Organized Crime

Brattenbury says, ‘Fiona, this is remarkable work. You—’

Jackson interrupts him. ‘Don’t flatter her. She’ll cock everything up. Or start shooting people.’

Which is essentially the outline for every Fiona Griffiths novel, really.

Watching Fi go deeper into her cover and into the fraud activity is gripping — and also very different from the earlier books. Fiona doesn’t get to spend as much time with the dead as she likes, she can’t have their pictures on display without ruining her cover. It doesn’t stop her from doing what she can along those lines, but it gives Strange Death a different feel from its predecessors.

Fi’s investigation of the deaths isn’t the focus of this novel, it’s her undercover work — how she does it, how she embodies her cover, how as her cover she contributes to the community, how she learns things that can help her (both the fictional her and the real). Like too many who go undercover, Fi arguably gets too close to her targets (it’s not much of an argument, really), and lines between the detective and the felonious payroll clerk blurred more than they should’ve. The same kind of focus, the same kind of attachment she makes to the victims in the other books (and cases we don’t have record of) is brought to the people and work she encounters here.

At the same time, Fi’s desire — need — for the emotional, familial and romantic connections she’s made has never been stronger. Those things that she wanted, so she can be more like a citizen of “Planet Normal,” act as an anchor to reality in a way that has to surprise her. Not only that, she forges new relationships as DC Griffiths through these events. Minor spoiler: the Fiona Griffiths that emerges from this assignment is a noticeably different, more well-rounded, and changed in other (less pleasant) ways.

It was good to see DCI Jackson at work again. The other police officers (particularly Brattenbury and his team) were more interesting than we’ve gotten before. The same could and should be said for the other supporting characters we encounter in these pages — criminal and civilian alike. I hope that Bingham is able to find ways to bring many of these characters back in future novels (or he can just give us new characters that are as well constructed, but I like so many of these I’d prefer to see them).

I’m a sucker for undercover cop stories — since the first time I saw Ken Wahl’s Vinnie Terranova (when I was too young to be seeing such things) and what his work did to him. This was no exception — and a strong sample of the type. This story of Fiona Griffiths’ UC work is just as gripping, just as surprising as you could want and a sure sign that this character is more than a one-trick pony (if anyone was still wondering) and that Bingham is a writer to watch.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

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Love Story, With Murders by Harry Bingham

Love Story, With MurdersLove Story, With Murders

by Harry Bingham
Series: Fiona Griffiths, #2

Kindle Edition, 449 pg.
Sheep Street Books, 2016

Read: January 4 – 8, 2018

For me, these things aren’t only about finding the killers, but about giving peace to the dead. It’s not primarily a question of justice. The dead don’t care about that. The murder investigation, arrest and conviction are just part of the funeral rite, the final acts of completion. Gifts I bring the dead in exchange for the peace they bring me.

The peace of the dead, which passeth all understanding.

DC Fiona Griffiths continues her efforts to act normal, maybe even feel normal, getting along with her boyfriend and staying out of trouble with her superiors. Basically, things are going as well as they possibly can following the events of Talking to the Dead. But we know that’s going to come to an end, otherwise, this would be a really dull series. It comes to an end when Fiona and a colleague stop off on their way home to look at a case of illegal rubbish. In this particular case, the rubbish is a body part in a chest freezer. It’s a significant enough body part to make the detectives sure they’re looking for something more serious than illegal rubbish.

Over the next few days, the police are able to find some more of the woman, as well as start to understand how long ago she was killed and dismembered — which leads to an identification. Shortly thereafter, the police find pieces of a fresher corpse in the same area. While most detectives look for connections between the victims and hunt for clues to identify the killer, Fi begins learning more about the victims as individuals (not that she’s alone in this, it’s just she’s alone in her approach), what their lives were like, and what would lead someone to kill them. Fi investigates things in a way no other fictional detective — private or police — does. I’m not sure I can express it clearly, but when you read it, you’ll notice. When she starts to put the pieces together about what was going on the whole time, I was flummoxed — it’s nothing like where I expected things to go.

Aside from that are the relationships with her boyfriend, family and fellow police officers. The romance between Buzz and Fi is very strange, but sweet. She’s dealing with a different superior for these investigations. It’s not just Fi up to the same antics with a different boss — similar antics, yes, but Fi understands herself better now, and is able to do what she does in a way that her superiors are able to accept and use. As for her family? I’m not even going to try to talk about it.

Some people are better as corpses. They’re easier to like.

On the one hand, I really like watching Fi’s subconscious at work, making the connections, deductions, and guesses she needs to be making to solve the crime/find what she’s looking for, while she interprets it as “the dead” talking to her. Well, that’s one way to read it, anyway. It really could be that there’s something on the verge of supernatural going on. I like the hint of ambiguity that Bingham has given this world and Fi’s understanding of what’s going on.

I was, I don’t want to say surprised, but it was something like it by the ending. Maybe I’ve just been reading too many Mysteries lately with pretty ambiguous endings, but this one had a very satisfying ending with most of the loose ends tied up. This doesn’t mean that everything ended happily (for want of a better term), but that Fi’s fully able to satisfy her curiosity and need to know (at least about those things that came up in her professional life — her personal life is only slightly more settled by the book’s end than it was when it started).

A murder mystery — with, yes, a love story — that had some fantastic character moments, a really strong puzzle, all very well told. Fiona Griffiths impresses again. This is the best kind of sequel — the same kind of things that filled the first book in the series, but seen differently by everyone (including the protagonist) and with different results — Fi’s grown a bit (I want to stress “a bit,” she’s still basically the same person, which is good, I don’t want everything to be “normal” for this character), and is building on the events from the previous novel, not just repeating them. I’m truly annoyed with myself for waiting so long to get back to this series, and will not make the same mistake.

—–

4 Stars

Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham

Talking to the DeadTalking to the Dead

by Harry Bingham
Series: Fiona Griffiths, #1

Hardcover, 337 pg.
Delacorte Press, 2012

Read: February 16 – 17, 2016

One thing I need to do a better job of is remembering how I found out about a book/series/author that I need to try, this novel is a great example of why. I remember putting it on my TBR, and that there was something about it that made me move it ahead of the others — but I can’t tell you when or why I did so. Sometimes, like with this book, that drives me crazy. I just had to trust that I knew what I was doing when I picked it up. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to convince me that Fi Griffiths had something special going on — mostly it was the voice, the attitude, her humor as seen when she’s going through stacks and stacks of financial documents to make a case air-tight (before the inevitable guilty plea for ripping off a private school):

My desk is covered with paper. I loathe all banks and credit card companies. I hate every digit between 0 and 9. I despise every dopily run Catholic boys’ school in South Wales. If Brian Penry were in front of me now, I would try to force-feed him my calculator, which is as large and chewable as Bakelite phone.

It didn’t take too long before the merits of the case drew me in (not the drudgery of the case above, but the one that drove the novel’s action), and would have even without Fi’s narration. But it was a lock with her as a character. The grim nature of the killings grip the reader, the way they do Griffiths’ colleagues and superiors. What really impressed me was that it is one of the sickest, grossest descriptions of a corpse this side of a Bones episode — and Bingham doesn’t dwell on it — oh, he could’ve, and most authors would have. It’s there stark enough to give the reader the willies, in a just-the-facts-fashion, but Bingham doesn’t exploit the nature of the killing or the state of the body.

To put it charitably, Fi is quirky. To be more accurate, she’s suffering from a serious mental condition — she’s (mostly) got it under control, however. Social skills aren’t really in her wheelhouse — at least not automatically — which presents an additional challenge for her work. Early on, I kept picturing Diane Kruger’s performance from The Bridge, it diminished eventually, but I think Fi will always be Kruger-esque to me. We do eventually get actual information about her condition — which is nice, but we don’t need it to understand her enough to empathize with her. There’s an Author’s Note at the end with more details about the actual condition — don’t read it until the end. Get to know her absent the condition first.

Bingham creates a good bench of supporting characters — a potential boyfriend, a couple of supervisors (who have differing levels of concern for her), a former therapist, an old friend (former trainer/sensei-type), parents, sisters, and a few other detectives. One or more of these can be summoned from the bench with ease in the future, but we don’t get to spend a lot of time with any of them here — just enough to establish them. We spend some good time with her potential boyfriend, old friend/trainer/sensei and dad — I like them all and want to see more of them. But this is really Fi’s book and the narrative weight falls on her troubled, yet capable shoulders.

We hardly get an idea for what kind of men the bad guys are here — it’s just shadowy criminals, up to shadowy criminal things. I like the idea that we only get things through law enforcement eyes, not through the killer’s — that happens far too often for my taste. Like Fi says, I know this way we don’t get the full story, but I prefer not being in the mind of the sickos at work here. We, and the police, get most of the story in the end, and that’s good enough for me.

The book closes with a couple of the most heartfelt, moving scenes that I can think of in Detective Fiction (give me time, and I could probably make a decent list of competitors, still pretty sure this would be near the top — sure, that scene in Gone, Baby, Gone has this beat, but not many others would). I had a hard time believing that it would work as effectively given the fact this is a first novel for the character — but Bingham has laid a lot of ground work to get us ready for these moments, and it paid off well.

Talking to Strangers grabbed me in just the right way. I want to devote the next few days to just reading the rest if this series (I won’t, I know I need to pace myself, but… Oh, I really want to just binge). Fi is an early leader for favorite character of the year (a thing I just decided to do).

—–

4 Stars