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by Jim Kelly
Michael Joseph, July 2007
352 pages
16.99 GBP
ISBN: 0718149483

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

One of the most difficult things for a writer must be knowing exactly when to give a successful series a break. Evidence in THE SKELETON MAN suggests Jim Kelly might have come to that conclusion.

The series, starring journalist Philip Dryden, has always been an absolute delight, and THE SKELETON MAN is, on the whole, no exception. Kelly is apparently working on a book featuring DI Peter Shaw, who makes his debut in this book. Shaw is an unusual cop, a kind of cool surfer dude. He's under-developed here, but clearly has possibilities. And giving Dryden a rest, or moving in new directions, might pay dividends for this talented writer.

An ongoing theme of this series has been history returning to haunt people. In THE SKELETON MAN, Dryden joins the Territorial Army on an exercise at the hamlet of Jude's Ferry. The place has been empty for 17 years after the army requisitioned it for training purposes. This didn't go down well with the inhabitants who were uprooted and spread around Cambridgeshire.

Jude's Ferry's proud boast of never having a single crime recorded there is blotted big time when a shell blows apart the pub, revealing a skeleton hanging in the cellar. And there's another link to the village when, several days later, a man is pulled out of the river near Ely. He has no idea who he is or how he got there but the village name strikes a frightened chord with him.

The deserted village has echoes of real-life Imber on Salisbury Plain, where villagers are allowed to return once a year for a church service. Kelly manages to couple claustrophobic families and villages with the vast, faintly sinister Fenland landscape.

Kelly packs in real menace with moments of deadpan humour as Dryden is on the trail of a big story, accompanied as always by cab-driver Humph (who this time is learning Faroese "a Nordic tongue which offered the comforting certainty of being totally redundant in the middle of the English Fens") and Boudicca the greyhound.

Laura, Dryden's wife, is now back home with him after emerging from a coma, and they're living on PK129, a former inshore naval patrol boat (incidentally, did I miss something in an earlier book about the fate of the house they'd bought together?)

THE SKELETON MAN is neatly plotted, as always, and Dryden faces physical danger on several occasions. But most of the other characters aren't very developed and I can't quite put my finger on why this book didn't grab me as much as the others. It might be because it feels like Kelly has ploughed the 'secrets from the past' furrow once too often. Mind you, Kelly not quite at his best is still streets ahead of most other writers.

The book doesn't feel like the end of the line for Dryden, but there are some tying up of loose ends for his career and for Laura. And I hope Kelly does return to the series with renewed freshness somewhere the line.

Oh, and there's one minor point that drove me mad by the end of the book. Kelly is unable to mention vehicles without them being 'parked up.' Not only is that tautology (during the book he has Dryden muttering darkly about someone writing 'totally unique') it's also a glaring Americanism in what's a very English book.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, July 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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