When a novel opens with a detective on his way to a murder mystery evening, it’s not hard to guess where the story is going. What makes Cragside potentially more interesting is the prologue. In 1975, a man heads into work on the docks in Tyneside, where he is caught in an explosion in which over a hundred men die.
Back to the present, DCI Ryan and his fiancée are temporarily living in a cottage in the grounds of the stately home of Cragside, which has led to their invitation to the murder mystery evening at the house. When the inevitable death occurs, Ryan treats it as a crime, although it is by no means clear that it is, and the investigation goes on from there.
This sets up two interesting juxtapositions. You have the cast of a realist police procedural, more used to serial killers, thrust into a textbook cosy mystery, and the iconic settings of the Tyneside shipyard and the stately home, representing contrasting economic interests in the same region.
Unfortunately, these themes were not developed. There are a number of characters who might be a murderer, and we dance through a series of steps until a murderer is revealed. The locations were just locations, the genre tropes just genre tropes.
There is quite a lot of repetition and some continuity and procedural issues. Ryan seems to be constantly outlining to himself how much he empathises with victims and how strongly this motivates him in his work, even though this is not demonstrated through his action (more on that later). He narrows down the suspects quite rapidly and implausibly. In one chapter he ‘knows’ something at the beginning, but then asks his team to establish if this thing has happened at the end. He seems quite happy for his civilian fiancée to turn up at a crime scene on a social call, to wander around freely and to have access to confidential information about the case.
My main difficulty is with the character of Ryan himself. We are frequently told that Ryan is universally loved by his colleagues. The junior officers either want to be him or to go out with him. His senior colleagues have close friendships with him. However I found Ryan very unappealing as a character. He is rude, arrogant, has no hesitation in shouting down junior officers when things go wrong, rather than taking responsibility himself, and his manner towards witnesses is appalling.
Much is made of his privileged background which makes him a classic fish out of water. Perhaps it doesn’t help that as a supercilious, southern, former public schoolboy, in the audiobook he sounds rather like David Cameron. His relationship with his sidekick DS Phillips is kind of a Morse/Lewis one, where Phillips plays up his bluff amiability and Ryan sneers at his dietary habits.
This is the sixth book in the series and it may be that I’ve just picked the wrong one (some of the reviews I’ve read suggest it isn’t up to the standard of the earlier books). Perhaps series fatigue has set in, perhaps there was a rush to publish. There were some interesting details about the different locations, in particular Cragside (which is a real place, owned by the National Trust, though in the novel it is privately owned). There is a nice twist at the end which sets up the next book. I know this series is incredibly popular but for me it didn’t live up to expectations.