The long denigrated Northern English port city of Hull is undergoing a physical and psychological refurbishment in preparation for its 2017 stint as the “UK City of Culture”. On the face of it, leading Hull writer, Nick Quantrill’s, latest gripping crime novel, “The Dead Can’t Talk”, is not about that shiny new city.
Few of the characters in “The Dead Can’t Talk” would appear on any glitzy 2017 guest lists. The cast includes shady politicians, bent coppers, dodgy builders, prostitutes, dissolute journalists and ex-squaddies struggling to adjust after war and prison. Quantrill relishes plunging us into their grimy corners of Hull - the massage parlours, dingy pubs, bleak coastal outposts and derelict former showpiece buildings of the fishing industry that are unlikely to feature as City of Culture venues.
The story centres around Anna Stone, a disillusioned but bloody-minded cop who is drifting away from the force. Stone is determined to uncover the truth behind the death of her journalist sister, an event that was all too conveniently written off as suicide by her police colleagues. She reluctantly teams up in a classic odd couple crime-solving partnership with Luke Carver. Carver, who was once put in prison by Stone, is a troubled Afghanistan veteran struggling to reconcile his strong sense of morality with his violent impulses.
Like many former soldiers, Carver is finding it difficult to readjust to civilian life and receives little help to deal with his nightmarish experiences in uniform from the country he served. He falls into the alliance with Stone when one of his few friends, Gemma Wharton, a prostitute who occupies the neighbouring bedsit, is brutally attacked, then murdered in a crime for which Carver is framed.
The connections between these two deaths rapidly multiply and Stone and Carver’s quest leads them ever more dangerously deeper into the past of a city whose most powerful players are desperate to keep their dark secrets. It is here where Quantrill and Hull excel. Rather than the predominantly intellectual puzzle that some crime stories set, “The Dead Can’t Talk” is as visceral as it is intricate. This, after all, is “….that kind of city. Its criminals are violent and volatile, rather than strategic and organised. It is a place built on brute force and anger”.
And yet, for all that it is apparently the antithesis of the City of Culture glamour, the book successfully operates on the two levels that are feature of the crime genre at its best. The characters are well-drawn and the suspense is compelling. But “The Dead Can’t Talk” also provides a vivid insight into a place and time. It evokes the atmosphere of a city battling to emerge from decades of disintegration and forge a new identity for itself, whilst not burying completely the legacies of its past.
This sense is encapsulated by the characters as well as the setting in which they operate. Many of them are making faltering attempts to atone for their past failings and seize the opportunity for renewal and a fresh start. In a smart three-dimensional touch, this goes beyond the flawed heroes at the story’s heart to encompass more ambivalent characters such as the former “Hull Daily Mail” editor, Ken Young, Stone’s former colleague, DS Skipper, former prostitute turned charity worker and politician’s wife, Kerry Sterling, and at least one of the principal villains. For them, and Hull, the backdrop of the City of Culture preparations serves as a symbol of renewal and cleansing. The “City of Culture” initiative might be superficial and unable to undo the wrongs that have already been done. But it does offer an opportunity of a fresh start for people and a place that have been disregarded for too long.
As a thrillingly gritty crime novel, “The Dead Can’t Talk”, is excellent. And as a defiantly gloss-free insight into the transition and character of an increasingly hip city, it is hard to beat.
Available now from Amazon