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by Patricia Hall
Allison & Busby, January 2009
352 pages
19.99 GBP
ISBN: 0749079592

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Laura Ackroyd is working on a story about the conversion of a Bradfield comprehensive into an 'Academy', a project being led by millionaire David Murgatroyd who has already established several of these schools running on the basis of his Christian fundamentalist dogmas. Meanwhile

DCI Michael Thackeray is involved in the search for Karen Bastable, a young woman who disappeared after a 'dogging' party. Laura is pregnant but dreads revealing this to Thackeray as she knows of his past and his terror of fatherhood.

The Thackeray and Ackroyd series has been running since DEATH BY ELECTION in 1993. In that and the 15 series books which have followed (DEVIL'S GAME being the 16th and most recent) she has covered political corruption, violence against women, prostitution, racism, abortion, drugs, fascism, the decline of traditional industry, immigration, housing and many more social issues, some of them repeatedly. This long and distinguished record means that she deserves the title of Queen of British Sociological Suspense. The best parts of her books are always those concerned with these issues, where her anger and commitment burn bright and communicate themselves to the reader. There is no mystery writer I know of who can make me just so angry about what is happening in my country and Hall has been doing that for years. The best books are those where the issues predominate and are closely entwined with the mystery and its solution.

Unfortunately, and I speak as a great admirer of Hall, there are a number of problems with her books which prevent her being in the absolutely front-rank. First the mystery plots themselves are of a variable quality. Secondly while she is a good action writer the repetition of the jeopardy motif is one which can become wearisome (in this she reminds one of her great American equivalent Sara Paretsky). Thirdly the long-running and deeply troubled relationship of Thackeray and Ackroyd does tend to tire the patience. Finally her books lack light and shade; they are all shade, just of varying degrees.

In any assessment of a particular book what counts is an assessment of first the degree of commitment to the social issue examined - the worst in the entire series, SINS OF THE FATHERS (2005), took a disastrous step into spooks territory - and secondly the quality of the plotting. Unfortunately DEVIL'S GAME does not score particularly highly on either count. The best parts of the book are those concerned with David Murgatroyd's attempt to turn a Bradfield school into a Christian fundamentalist academy. Based, as usual, on real developments this is a brilliant expose of current Government education policies. The other social issue examined here - dogging, semi-public sex - is not one that seems worthy of either attention or anger as far as I am concerned.

But even more problematic is the fact that the plot is very heavy-handed with the solution being pretty obvious from an early stage. Laura and Michael's relationship continues on its rocky road although Laura's pregnancy at least holds out the promise that something will be resolved before too long.

The last thing I would want to do is put anyone off Hall. But DEVIL'S GAME would not be a good place to start; my own recommendation would be to go right back to the beginning of the series and work through; if you want a more recent book DEATH IN A FAR COUNTRY or DEAD RECKONING would be excellent introductions. DEVIL'S GAME does nothing to undermine Hall's position as doyenne of sociological suspense but it is still one of the weaker entries in a very fine series.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, April 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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