RogerBW's Blog

Last Rights, Barbara Nadel 13 May 2019

2006 mystery, first in Nadel's series about Francis Hancock, East End undertaker during the Blitz. During an air raid, a man claims that he's been stabbed, then runs off; later he shows up on Hancock's slab, apparently dead of blast, but Hancock isn't satisfied.

This feels like the sort of book that would be written by a person who's been brought up on tales of "Blitz spirit", and has then gone and found some less-sanitised accounts of how people felt and acted and wants to redress the balance. Everything and everyone here is mean and dirty.

This starts with Hancock himself, who is not only half-Indian (not that this seems to affect his personality at all except for the sort of food his mum cooks, but it gives people an excuse to despise him) but a shell-shocked veteran of the Great War, so claustrophobic that he can't bear to be indoors when a raid is happening and has to get out and run; and he can't speak when this is going on, only stutter, though he doesn't think of carrying a piece of paper to explain this to people he meets. And the only brief personal happiness he can find is with a local prostitute. One starts to feel that if he had a dog, it would die just to spite him.

On the good side, he won't put up with this murder being dismissed as an accident the way everyone else wants to, even when the victim turns out to have been a horrible person; his family will miss him, but nobody else seems to mind. (And people are being killed every night in the bombings anyway.) Of course, it's not the relatively simple matter that it appears to be, though the solution turns out to be very straightforward and I'll be surprised if anyone doesn't guess it once the relevant information has come to light.

That takes a while, because there's lots of trudging around investigating and being miserable first. There's more death, and digging into events everyone would rather have forgotten, and in the end gur zbgvingvba vf ragveryl hafngvfslvat nf vg erqhprf gb "n ybbal qvq vg", rira vs gur vafnar ernfbavat vf ynvq bhg va fbzr qrgnvy.

The physical confrontation at the climax of the book relies on someone undergoing a total change of heart that has been entirely unforeshadowed.

But it's not these technical failures that put me off from reading more in the series, it's the sense of grim unrelenting unrewarded grot with no hope in sight. I don't mind a bit of grim – I play Call of Cthulhu – but I like the idea that one can make things a little better for a while.

Followed by After the Mourning, but not by me.

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