The Language of the Dead by Stephen Kelly

The Language of the Dead, published in 2015, is the first in a series by American author, Stephen Kelly. I’ve read very little crime fiction set in the Second World War, though I enjoyed the detective drama series Foyle’s War. However I was intrigued by the synopsis saying that the main character, Chief Inspector Thomas Lamb, was still haunted by his time in the trenches.

The Language of the Dead: A World War II Mystery by [Kelly, Stephen]

The novel is set in the summer of 1940, where the murder takes place in a village in Hampshire. The setting had me hooked as I grew up in a small Hampshire village. It’s a county that’s not often used in crime fiction – although on television, Hampshire provided the locations for St Mary Mead, (real life Nether Wallop) and Chief Inspector Wexford’s Kingsmarkham (Romsey).

I enjoyed The Language of the Dead very much, despite a couple of issues I’ll come to later. Crucially important, I really liked the three leading detectives. They alone make me want to read the second in the series. Chief Inspector Lamb is an appealing character, a happily married, family man, deeply affected – twenty-two years on – by his experiences in the First World War. A fair man who takes his job seriously.

His side-kick Sergeant Wallace has his own problems and is the focus of a well-written sub-plot with a noir-like feel. The author made me ‘see’ those particular scenes like a black and white film. When the third of an uneasy trio is introduced, Inspector Rivers is a figure from Lamb’s past. This debut novel sets the scene for some interesting development in future titles. Stephen Kelly’s characters and their motivations are very believable.

The plot concerns the bizarre murder of an old man, while he was hedging on farmland. As the author mentions on his website, this was partly inspired by a real unsolved murder which took place in Warwickshire in 1945. Inspector Lamb’s daughter is the village A.R.P. warden.

Stephen Kelly is good at catching the atmosphere of rural southern England thrust into the desperate summer of the Battle of Britain. Traditional village life with its lingering superstitions is shown changed almost overnight by R.A.F. camps, gun emplacements, rations and the blackout. Everyone is nightly watching the sky where the flames of Southampton and Portsmouth can be seen. The villagers are already tense and fearful before they have a murderer among them.

Because Stephen Kelly writes so well, I was disappointed that he didn’t convey any real feeling of Hampshire. I’ve no problem with adjusting the map – that’s necessary for writers and we certainly do that in our own novels – but most writers keep an authentic atmosphere of place. I’d have liked some description of the fictional village of Quimby and the old cathedral city of Winchester, home to the detectives’ police station. The sparse details we do get are inaccurate, Hampshire doesn’t go in for glens or stone-built villages.

But the main jarring factor for me, was the constant use of Americanisms and sometimes lack of knowledge of British ways. Part of me feels mean saying this but American terms ‘jolt’ me out of the British fictional world that’s been created. It seems fashionable among American authors to write historic crime fiction set in England and I do understand the attraction and difficulties. I enjoy Charles Todd’s period crime novels but sometimes find the same problem. 

Despite these caveats there was so much I enjoyed about The Language of the Dead. I will read the second book The Wages of Desire and look forward to finding out more about the series’ characters.

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