Among the lovely dead
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.