Trapeze | 2017 (23 February) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
There is nothing ordinary about this particular corpse. It comprises the stitched together dismembered remains of six people – male and female, black and white, tall and short. Each of the limbs – and torso and head – have something distinguishing about them. Just enough to give away clues as to their origin and, perhaps more importantly, their connection to each other (other than through the thick, uneven, cruel stitching). It isn’t long before the media award the murderer with a name – the Ragdoll Killer.
Sergeant William Fawkes (aka Wolf) has just returned to the London Met after a long time away. It’s possible that he may never be the same again after the part he played in bringing another infamous serial killer, the Cremation Killer, to court. It certainly destroyed his marriage. But like it or not, he’s back on the job and his first case is the Ragdoll Killer, surely a murderer every bit as evil as the one who almost destroyed his life. With Wolf on the new case is his old partner Detective Emily Baxter. She too has her own problems, while the newbie on the case, Detective Alex Edmunds, has everything to prove. But he has the mind and ability to do it. It’s a small team working on the Ragdoll Killer case and tempers are frayed, especially when the killer sends the press the names of the next ragdoll, the next six people on his death list along with the days on which they will meet their fate. It doesn’t help that the sixth and final person on the list is none other than Wolf himself.
Ragdoll is the debut novel by Daniel Cole and you wouldn’t guess it for an instant. This is such an accomplished, confident and fine piece of writing but, not only that, its plot is absolutely fantastic! We’re left guessing from the very beginning but this almost plays second fiddle to the thunderously dark and menacing mood that hangs over the whole proceedings, as well as the novel’s great characterisation, dialogue, and wit. There are moments here that made my jaw drop almost off my face, the shocks are so horrifically shocking, while there were other moments that made me laugh out loud. This is a novel as witty as it is dark.
The story is brilliant. It’s ridiculously inventive and clever. It might be gruesome and macabre in places but I was filled with admiration for the imaginative flair of the killer (and author). The pace is urgent throughout because we know the killer’s timetable of murder from the very beginning. Our expectations are mirrored by that of the media and public who are pinned to the news as the death clock in the corner of the TV news studio counts down the hours and minutes to the next day of slaughter. The fact that the journalist with the most prominent profile is personally close to Wolf certainly helps to stir up the passions. But, more than anything else, this is an ingenious murder mystery. I didn’t guess any of it and I didn’t even try. I was glued to every page.
Wolf is a fantastic central creation but my favourite, I think even more than Wolf and the violently vulnerable Baxter, is Edmunds. I love the ways in which he tries to ingratiate himself with Baxter, never succeeding, and yet growing ever closer, more by accident than design. I can’t think of many other police partnerships I’ve enjoyed as much as this. There is barely a detective here without some kind of crippling back history – and Wolf’s own past experiences would be impossible to beat – but I really enjoyed the effect of this on their personalities. There is a frisson of insanity running through the incident room. It’s as close to the edge as it can get. It’s as if somebody has lit a fuse and at any moment the whole business could be blown into smithereens.
There are a few elements here that seem familiar, notably the killer communicating directly with the female news reporter, and at times there seems something rather American about the phrasing and tone, but regardless of all that, Ragdoll is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining crime thrillers I’ve read. It is a joy to read, fuelled in part by the author’s pleasing sense of humour, and I didn’t want to put it down at all. I was shocked in the best of ways by some of the twists that are revealed along the way. Ragdoll is full of treats from start to finish. I can’t recommend it enough.