Among the lovely dead

Hu­man Re­mains

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sue Green Sue Green

By El­iz­a­beth Haynes Text, 385 pp, $29.99

WHILE a two-year ca­reer break to fo­cus on her writ­ing has re­lo­cated El­iz­a­beth Haynes from a po­lice com­puter to a back­yard shed, she has en­sured that in this, the fi­nal year be­fore re­sum­ing her ‘‘ day job’’, she will not es­cape talk­ing about work. For those who have won­dered what a po­lice in­tel­li­gence an­a­lyst does, Haynes pro­vides some an­swers by giv­ing the pro­tag­o­nist of her third crime thriller her own job.

Annabel Hayer, 38, sin­gle, over­weight and lonely, toils in front of a com­puter, seek­ing pat­terns in data, or at­tend­ing meet­ings to dis­cuss find­ings. From a clunky com­puter sys­tem to the nightly theft of her milk, Annabel’s work­ing life is fraught with small frus­tra­tions, ones that pre­sum­ably re­flect Haynes’s own as a po­lice in­tel­li­gence an­a­lyst in Kent, Eng­land. Annabel muses: Work­ing as civil­ians in the po­lice force was of­ten a bat­tle of cul­tures, try­ing to per­suade se­nior of­fi­cers that we had a worth­while con­tri­bu­tion to make to an in­ves­ti­ga­tion . . . The near­est I was likely to come to a crim­i­nal was liv­ing in bliss­ful anonymity two streets away from my lo­cal se­rial sex of­fender, or pass­ing some­one in the front of­fice as they waited to be dealt with . . . In­stead I looked at all the fig­ures, all the raw data that churned in day af­ter day af­ter day, form­ing it into pat­terns, look­ing for a way in.

When Annabel dis­cov­ers the de­com­pos­ing body of a next-door neigh­bour she did not know, she checks the data and dis­cov­ers 24 such cases in fic­tional Bri­ar­stone in the first nine months of 2012, sub­stan­tially up on pre­vi­ous years. While she does not sus­pect mur­der — in most cases the coroner has de­ter­mined nat­u­ral causes — she thinks some­thing is not right.

What is not right is Colin Fried­land, a lo­cal coun­cil em­ployee whose af­ter-hours en­ter­tain­ment in­cludes pornog­ra­phy, mas­tur­ba­tion and part-time study — in par­tic­u­lar, be­havioural ther­a­pies he is us­ing in ways unimag­in­able to his night-school tu­tors.

His col­leagues think he is weird, and how right they are. There’s noth­ing Colin likes more than de­com­pos­ing flesh. ‘‘ Love­lier in her time of de­cay than she ever breath­ing,’’ he thinks of one of the dead.

Haynes tells the story from the view­points of Annabel and Colin, and from that of the dead — sad, lonely peo­ple who have per­ished alone. Their sto­ries re­veal why each lost the will to live, and this gives im­pe­tus to a nar­ra­tive the author re­alised could flag. In her after­word, she says she aims to re­dress ne­glect of po­lice an­a­lysts by crime fic­tion writ­ers, but ad­mits it is dif­fi­cult to con­vey their ex­cite­ment ‘‘ over a par­tic­u­larly en­light­en­ing spread­sheet — it makes us sound re­ally geeky and dull’’.

To add in­ter­est, she teams Annabel with Sam Everett, a keen young lo­cal jour­nal­ist.

Haynes’s writ­ing ca­reer blos­somed when her first thriller, Into the Dark­est Cor­ner, was named Ama­zon Best Book of the Year 2011. Her writ­ing is un­ex­cep­tional but she has good com­mand of pace, builds ten­sion and holds the reader’s at­ten­tion with in­trigu­ing twists.

Hu­man Re­mains is far su­pe­rior to her sec­ond novel, Re­venge of the Tide (2012), in which she re­worked the struc­ture of her de­but. This new novel com­bines a dis­turb­ing plot with a med­i­ta­tion on the plight of those who find them­selves alone and unloved, and on our re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards our neigh­bours.

The end­ing, how­ever, is dis­ap­point­ing. While Haynes has no qualms about de­scrib­ing de­com­pos­ing bod­ies in stom­ach-churn­ing de­tail, nor the sex­ual re­sponse of the voyeur whose en­joy­ment of their ‘‘ trans­for­ma­tion’’ is equally re­pul­sive, she baulks at the kind of cred­i­ble de­noue­ment that’s needed here.

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