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Laura Wilson's first Stratton book, STRATTON'S WAR (2008), was a triumph and therefore incurred the burden of large expectations for any second book, together with a number of questions as to the direction in which she would take the series. STRATTON'S WAR was centred on an examination of issues of class and gender through the characters of DI Ted Stratton and a young woman, Diana Calthrop, whose stories collided. While the subject matter was definitely handled in a modern and revisionist manner, the actual narrative technique of the book was traditional. What one becomes aware of from the very first page of AN EMPTY DEATH is that Wilson is going to use a very different narrative technique and thus confound any expectations. In fact for the bulk of the book we are given three viewpoints; that of Stratton, that of his wife Jenny and that of the criminal whom we know at first as Sam Todd, a mortuary attendant.
The action of the book opens with Stratton assisting in the rescue of a woman from a V2 bomb attack; this woman, Mrs Ingram, is taken in by his sister-in-law Doris. When her husband is traced and appears Mrs Ingram claims that he is an imposter. Doris and Jenny have to try and deal with this situation, and even when they are convinced that in fact Mrs Ingram is suffering from delusions are determined not to report her in case she be committed to an asylum, of which they have appalling memories from visiting an aunt there. Meanwhile Stratton is faced with the murder of first a doctor and later another two murders at the Middlesex Hospital. At the same time we follow Todd as he transmutes into Dr. Dacre and takes up a position at the Middlesex, where he becomes obsessed with the nurse Fay Marchant. These three central tracks gradually converge towards a tragic outcome which concludes Part One of the book; Part Two is a coda in which various events are, to a greater or lesser extent, resolved.
Any attempt to describe this book in terms of a mere narrative summary is doomed to inadequacy. Wilson's concerns here, as in the first book, are with history and character and the impact of the one upon the other. The events of AN EMPTY DEATH however take place at the end of the War in 1944-45 and the prevailing atmosphere is one of exhaustion and confusion. Once again Wilson's atmospheric writing is brilliant, conveying all that she intends with a minimum of effort or the intrusive historical paraphernalia and detail which overwhelm so many historical mysteries. In this the book is consistent with the first but in many other ways AN EMPTY DEATH is significantly different. While the ability to produce a solidly consistent series is invaluable and such series make up the mainstay of mystery fiction, the writer who can go beyond that and, while retaining the series format and strengths, produce very different individual books within it, is reaching towards greatness. One of the finest adepts of this was of course Margery Allingham, whose Campion books have an extraordinary tonal and narrative range, and it was Allingham of whom I was several times reminded while reading this book; of her World War 2 masterpiece TRAITOR'S PURSE with its theme of amnesia, and of Jack Havoc her magnetic villain in TIGER IN THE SMOKE. Todd/Dacre here has little of Havoc's pure menace but his self-justifications are certainly reminiscent of Havoc's. The central character of Stratton of course remains the same and grows in both interest and depth - he functions as Wilson's Everyman but here his emotional range is extended (sadly all we hear of Diana Calthrop is that she is pregnant and staying with her mother-in-law, which would represent a sad defeat for that delightful woman; however as we are informed of this by a fundamentally untrustworthy character Wilson has left herself plenty of room for manoeuvre should she wish to resurrect Diana).
AN EMPTY DEATH is centrally concerned with questions of identity; is Mr Ingram really who he says he is for instance? But these questions are funnelled through the character of Todd/Dacre and here Wilson pulls off the remarkable trick of getting the reader at times almost to sympathise and root for a man who remains fundamentally criminal and unpleasant. Todd/Dacre's ability to succeed as he does is to some extent predicated on the mess and confusion which war-time conditions have induced, but points are also being made about the extent to which judgements are made on the basis of appearance - 'face-value' indeed. The narrative tricks which Wilson herself pulls off are of course a part of this; as mystery readers we ourselves should know all too well that we should never take things at face value. Here we are to some extent - but only some extent - shown some of the tricks of the deception trade. While class and gender issues are again raised here, the chief interest and impact of AN EMPTY DEATH is psychological where that of STRATTON'S WAR was sociological.
I would not say this is a flawless book. In particular I felt it would have benefitted from some editing and pruning in the middle sections where the narrative pace flags somewhat. But the climactic scenes of Part One and the whole of Part Two (which only represents the last 70 pages) are terrific; it is a very rare mystery which leaves me tearful at the end but this did exactly that. Stratton's War has now ended and I am agog to read of his life in post-War London. AN EMPTY DEATH laboured under the burdens of great expectations and the dreaded 'second book' test (not that it is Wilson's second book but it is the second in the series); it succeeds triumphantly in meeting those expectations by going in a new and riveting direction but retaining the virtues of the first book - wonderful and evocative prose, a helpful leaven of humour (yes the noxious brother-in-law Reg does re-appear), terrific sense of period, excellent characterisation and, towards the end especially, a genuine power to move. The Stratton series, as we may now call it, is in the very top rank of contemporary mystery writing
Reviewed by Nick Hay, June 2009
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