The Headhunters by Peter Lovesey

May 27, 2008 at 7:42 pm (Book review, books, Music, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

I always look forward to the new Peter Lovesey because I know I am virtually guaranteed to enjoy an engrossing story, intriguing characters, lots of atmosphere, and exceptionally fine writing. The Headhunters delivers on all those expectations, and then some.

Often in good series fiction, the reader encounters at least one variation on a theme in each series entry. In this novel, we get to know Jo Stevens and her friends Gemma, Rick, and Jake well before the police come into the story. Jo is an earnest, decent young woman who is somewhat confused as to what shape her life is going to assume. One thing she does know: she is attracted to the taciturn, somewhat mysterious Jake Kernow. Jake works in a nature preserve located near the Selsey beach. Not long after their first meeting, Jo takes a walk on the beach hoping to run into him, but instead, she makes a terrible discovery: a woman’s body floating in the shadow of a breakwater.

This gruesome find precipitates Jo’s first encounter with the Chichester police. It’s an offputting experience; Jo finds herself on the defensive, although she has done nothing except act the part of a public-spirited citizen. She is then asked to come to the station in order to observe a group of men in an identification parade (Britspeak for line-up). She agrees, with great reluctance, to this request. Sure enough, her part in this proceeding upsets her even more – and with good reason.

What’s interesting here is that my sympathies were enlisted so strongly on Jo’s behalf that I found myself sharing her fear and resentment of the police, with their aggressive interrogations and frightening insinuations. To me, they didn’t seem like the heroes of the story – at least, not at first.

But eventually, as they showed themselves capable of both subtlety and compassion, Henrietta “Hen” Mallin and her team grew on me. Mallin first appeared in The House Sitter, where she supported an investigation headed up by Lovesey’s series protagonist Peter Diamond. Then, in The Circle, their roles were reversed. Peter Diamond does not appear at all in The Headhunters.

In yet another change, the series venue has moved from Bath to Chichester, a cathedral city located in West Sussex, in the South of England. This is an area rich in both history and legend. Early in their acquaintance, as they walk along the beach, Jake tells Jo something about those legends:

“He stretched out his arm and made a sweeping movement in the direction of the sea. ‘Somewhere out there is a deer park’

She laughed. ‘Oh, yes?’

But he was serious. ‘In the time of Henry VIII, it was hunting country. Fisherman still call that stretch of sea “‘the park.'”

‘Hard to imagine.’

‘And still further out is a cathedral, they say.'”

Jo is understandably incredulous, especially about this latter tale, but Jake is dead serious. Later he tells her that over the years, people claim to have heard church bells at low tide!

( I’ve expended a good deal of effort trying to obtain further information about the legend of the sunken cathedral off Selsey Bill in West Sussex. Information was elusive; I felt as though I were going around in circles. The Wikipedia entry on Selsey has a short section entitled “Early history, prior to inundation.” Also I kept encountering references to the lost city of Ys, which was supposedly built on the coast of Brittany and then swallowed up by the sea. Here’s how that legend goes.

All the while I was doing this research I kept hearing in my head the haunting strains of “La Cathedrale Engloutie” by one of my favorite composers, Claude Debussy. This work was inspired by the legend of the city of Ys.

Click here for the sound file. )

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I love it when writers of fiction reference the history and lore that’s connected to the setting of their work. In Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, the village of Ewelme in South Oxfordshire appears briefly in the novel’s narrative; the author throws in, almost as a careless aside, that the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Ewelme is where the poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s granddaughter Alice lies buried. One feels instantly thrown back to a time several centuries distant.

[Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Ewelme]

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As more killings occur, the plot of The Headhunters becomes increasingly convoluted; at the same time, the sense of urgency is greatly heightened. But the murderer’s identity is only part of what makes this novel suspenseful. One of the problems Jo Stevens has with the local police is that they persist in their belief that the culprit is Jake Kernow. Jake is an interesting character, a shy introvert whose passion for the natural world could not be more genuine. Jo’s unshakeable faith in his goodness is the lodestar of this novel. And yet, as I read, I became increasingly anxious: is Jo in fact right about Jake? Is she willing to stake her life on her conviction? This is the point of tension that kept me glued to the pages of this novel right up to its harrowing conclusion.

4 Comments

  1. Carol said,

    Those of us who have read Margaret Frazer’s books have “met” Alice. Interesting to see where the real Alice lies.

  2. Roberta Rood said,

    Thanks for this comment, Carol. Margaret Frazer is yet another author that I keep meaning to get to – sigh…

  3. claudius said,

    Good review…thnks…I’ll read this, based on your review.

  4. mylibrarycardworeout said,

    I absolutely loved his writing of The Headhunters. It really kept me guessing until the last handful of pages.

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