Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham

Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham
Random House/Sept. 25th, 2011
Kind thanks to NetGalley for providing a review copy

At first, the murder scene appears sad, but not unusual: a young woman undone by drugs and prostitution, her six-year-old daughter dead alongside her. But then detectives find a strange piece of evidence in the squalid house: the platinum credit card of a very wealthy—and long dead—steel tycoon. What is a heroin-addicted hooker doing with the credit card of a well-known and powerful man who died months ago? This is the question that the most junior member of the investigative team, Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths, is assigned to answer.

But D.C. Griffiths is no ordinary cop. She’s earned a reputation at police headquarters in Cardiff, Wales, for being odd, for not picking up on social cues, for being a little overintense. And there’s that gap in her past, the two-year hiatus that everyone assumes was a breakdown. But Fiona is a crack investigator, quick and intuitive. She is immediately drawn to the crime scene, and to the tragic face of the six-year-old girl, who she is certain has something to tell her . . . something that will break the case wide open.

Ignoring orders and protocol, Fiona begins to explore far beyond the rich man’s credit card and into the secrets of her seaside city. And when she uncovers another dead prostitute, Fiona knows that she’s only begun to scratch the surface of a dark world of crime and murder. But the deeper she digs, the more danger she risks—not just from criminals and killers but from her own past . . . and the abyss that threatens to pull her back at any time.

Fiona Griffiths is bored of the case she’s working on, going over the financial records of an ex-cop turned thief, when another case comes up, and it’s about much more than theft. A prostitute and her young daughter are found in a squalid house, and the manner of murder of the little girl is horrendous. Something about the case captures Fi’s attention, and she begins to insert herself into the investigation any way she can. Focused, intense, and a little strange, Fi is determined to find out who killed this little girl, and the killer may be connected to her current case. A credit card belonging to a very wealthy man, who supposedly died in a plane crash, is found at the crime scene and it turns out Fiona’s thief may have more to do with this case than she initially thought, but he’s keeping things close to the vest. Unfortunately, Fi has a tendency to go off on her own, at the consternation of her boss. As she follows the clues and turns up evidence of abuse and victimization of the most horrifying kind, she also has to confront her own mysterious past.

Talking to the Dead is told in Fiona’s voice, and what a voice! Brilliant, odd, and very self-aware, Fiona is as fascinating, maybe even more so, then the actual case she’s working. Yes, this has all the hallmarks of a procedural, and the desire to see justice done for these women, and especially for the little girl, April, is strong. However, it’s also a study of a young woman still finding her way after a horrible experience with mental illness as a teenager. For Fiona, every emotion, every feeling is a gift, because she went so long without feeling anything. Her struggle to live a normal life (or be a part of Planet Normal, as she puts it) is poignant and bittersweet, and the author keeps you guessing about the origins of her illness until the end. The author navigates Fiona and her world with a deft touch, and yet doesn’t shy away from her willingness to see justice done and go to nearly any lengths to do just that. Talking to the Dead reminded me quite a bit of Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, mainly because of the protagonists, but also in how Harry Bingham uses the Welsh setting to contribute much of the mood and heft to the story, while brilliantly profiling a driven woman that is so often at odds with herself and her world. I’m officially a Bingham fan, and will eagerly look forward to his next novel.