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TALKING TO THE DEAD by Harry Bingham: Book Review

Sometimes a book is so good that when you finish reading it you simply have to close your eyes and relish it for a moment. Talking to the Dead is one of those books.

This is the first mystery I’m blogging about that takes place in modern Wales; the only other Welsh book on my blog is One Corpse Too Many, one of the Brother Cadfael twelfth-century mysteries by the late Ellis Peters.

Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths is an honors graduate in philosophy from Cambridge University and a relatively new member of the Cardiff police force. She already has a bit of a reputation for unorthodox behavior–when a suspect made some inappropriate advances to her, she broke his kneecap and three of his fingers.

Two bodies are found in a shabby, seemingly abandoned house in the city.  They are identified as Janet Mancini, a part-time prostitute with a drug habit, and her six-year-old daughter April.  In the midst of the squalor the police come across a credit card belonging to Brendan Rattigan, a wealthy businessman who died in a plane crash several months before the book opens.  What could this card be doing in Janet Mancini’s possession?

The narrative is in the first person, in Fiona’s voice.  We know almost from the beginning there is something off, not quite right about her. She’s not able to show emotions, and only by viewing what those around her are showing is she able to approximate the appropriate ones–fear, happiness, surprise.  And, to the best of her memory, she has never in her life cried.  In fact, she doesn’t know what tears would feel like–would they be hot, would they hurt?  She simply doesn’t know.

Fiona is sent with another officer to interview Cardiff’s prostitutes, hoping for a clue into Janet’s murder.  The women are initially reluctant to speak, not having had good experiences with the police, but they open up to Fiona a bit more willingly after a second prostitute is murdered.  They have to decide which is more frightening–talking to the police and hoping for protection or waiting for the killer to strike again.

Fiona is also investigating the case of a former police detective who will soon be on trial for embezzlement.  She thinks there’s a connection between his case and the murders, but no one else seems to share her feelings.  So she’s working overtime to follow her instincts and trying to connect the cases.

Fiona Griffiths is a remarkable character.  She’s smart, intuitive, courageous.  She’s trying to understand who she is, both personally and professionally, but she is plagued by frequent night terrors that she can’t explain, even to herself.  There were two years in her mid-teens when she had a complete mental breakdown, and neither she nor the mental health professionals who tried to help were successful in figuring out the cause or causes.

Following Fiona as she tries to deal with the blank spots in her memory is an important part of the novel.  When the book ends and the explanation given, I promise that you will not be unmoved.

The other characters in Talking to the Dead are wonderful too.  Her superior officer, her colleague who might become something more, her loving parents are all beautifully and realistically drawn.  This is a mystery but also a story of a young woman trying hard to find her place in the world.  It’s a remarkable debut.

You can read more about Harry Bingham at his web site.

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