Martyn Waites’ second excursion into Newcastle “noir” - Bone Machine – is a tale as dank and noisome as the Tyne. What brightens the trip, like fairy lights on the High Level Bridge, is Waites’ extraordinary creation of a detective “ensemble” that really works. Most sleuths – as opposed to their official police counterparts – work alone, or in the classic “sidekick” duo. When teamwork is tried the result always seems to be vaguely laughable – about as credible as International Rescue, Mission Impossible or Hustle.
But there’s nothing laughable about Joe Donovan – an ex-journalist – and the people he gathers around him to form Albion – “information brokers’ for hire. There’s Peta the black-belt ex-copper, Amar the high-tech whizz kid with a drugs and sex past, Jamal the runaway rent boy, and Sharkey the downbeat lawyer who brings them their business. This time around Katya joins the firm – a Serbian woman effectively enslaved into prostitution, rescued by Donovan. This is the classic urban family, not so much the odd couple, as the odd lot, and all the more poignant given the virtual presence of Donovan’s own son, missing now for three years.
The plot is played out against a backdrop as grimy as the floor when you finally move the fridge. Suffice to say Mr Waites will not be on the Christmas Card list down at Newcastle Tourist and Information Office. But all the key elements of that startling city are here – the precipitous steps down to the river, the stone-flagged alley ways, the urban wasteland, the streets of half-lit terraced houses, the industrial cranes.
And the abandoned burial ground where the first victim is found. A young woman, blond, her eyes and mouth sewn shut. There’s a suspect, Michael Nell, with a violent temper and a liking for S&M. But his defence team believe he didn’t do it, and they want Albion to build his alibi. Donovan takes the money and the team gets to work. The villains are nasty and the fear pungent. The central underworld triangle drawn between the Serbian ex-warlord, Kovacs, his blue-eyed henchman, Christopher and the hapless local sidekick, Decca, is brilliantly taut. We’re soon deeply ensnared in prostitution, people-smuggling, and drug peddling; a picture of low-life all the more credible given that Donovan’s team have been down that low themselves. And somewhere lurks the “Historian” – the serial killer – a concoction to make Hannibal Lecter look cuddly. The scenes in which he confronts his victim are – mercifully – short, but nonetheless pack enough punch to dispel any lingering feeling that this is “noir” by numbers.
Two minor gripes. Albion needs to drum up more work. The idea that the team can get fed and watered on the proceeds of one case at a time is a bit of stretch. They’re talented kids, let’s get them working round the clock. And that trademark mutilation of the victims – the sewn eyes and mouth. I realise that crazed killers don’t need a logical reason to do such things but most readers do. It strikes me as a responsible thought that crime writers who make up such gruesome signatures might stretch the plots a bit more to provide some justification, something more than evil is as evil does. Or was it just a good excuse for a stomach-turning cover ?
But none of that can take the pace out of Waites’ novel. And by the time it gets to its finale its travelling at a hell of a speed. In fact, it’s not so much a finale as a series of finales – enough to finish off half a dozen lesser tales. I lost count of the number of times I thought the final shot had been fired. All the elements are brought together in a tumbling denouement which, for once, justifies the word “thriller”. I read the final fifty pages on a train, a tube and finally in a bar. We even manage to take Donovan one step further in his nightmare search for that missing son. But if he doesn’t find him, Donovan will still have Albion, and it’s eclectic crew. One suspects a lot of readers will be back for the team’s next outing. I will.