Monday, March 5, 2012

Riding into the English Sunset

Tyrannosaurus rex and Detective Chief Inspector Charlie Woodend are forever linked in my mind. Why? A few days ago, I was idly reading online when I came across an article about the bite of a T. rex. Researchers from the University of Liverpool, using life-size models and computer analysis, state that "the biting force of T. rex may have been able to deliver 12,800 pounds of force—almost 20 times more powerful than previously thought." They likened the force to what it would feel like if an elephant sat down on you.

This is food for thought all right, but what does this have to do with DCI Woodend? Give me a minute. I was still thinking about how much faster I'd need to run from a T. rex than I'd already planned when I started the twentieth book in Sally Spencer's series, Fatal Quest: Woodend's First Case. The story begins in London on the smoggy night of November 10, 1950, when a teenage girl is killed by a man wielding an old-fashioned razor. Then the scene shifts to the buffet at the Whitebridge railway station in June 1973, where a "big bugger in a hairy sports coat" buys a beautiful blonde in her 30s a drink.

The man is newly retired DCI Woodend, and the woman is Sergeant Monika Paniatowski, who will replace him. They have sneaked away from his retirement party. Woodend is waiting for the train that will take him to his retirement villa in Spain. Paniatowski is already missing him; he has been her boss and mentor, and she's dreading his retirement. She teases that it's a miracle he actually made it to retirement, and Woodend smiles and says that's less remarkable than his promotion to Chief Inspector in the first place. He says he did it "by arrangin' to have somebody killed." She asks him to tell her about it, so he does.

In 1945, Major Cathcart, Woodend's WWII commanding officer, told Woodend that he would be returning to his former job at the Metropolitan Police Force and suggested a man of Woodend's obvious abilities should move to London and become a bobby. That explains why Detective Sergeant Woodend is sitting in his office at the Met on November 10, 1950 when the call comes in. A woman's shriek, "delivered in a whisper," tells Woodend that a man told her he had killed a girl and left her body at a bomb site on Mitre Road. Then she hangs up.

At the crime scene, Woodend is disgusted by the language the doctor and the constable use to refer to the murdered girl, who is black. They suggest that the murder will be low in priority for the Met, and their predictions are fulfilled and more. First, Woodend's superior, a lazy and irascible DCI named Bentley, assigns him to head this investigation, a first for Woodend. Then, an anonymous call to Woodend's home warns him that "if yer know what's good for yer, yer won't do that job too thoroughly." Woodend's investigations yield some surprising facts about the murdered girl, Pearl Jones; when Woodend reports these facts to DCI Bentley, he yanks Woodend from the case and assigns him to the death of a criminal at the rough Waterman's Arms.

Woodend is a "decent, honest, principled bloke in a world that has largely given up being decent and principled" and he asks himself, if he doesn't find justice for Pearl, who will? Despite threats from his superiors and London gangsters, attempted bribes, and other attempts to divert him, Woodend perseveres in this case that launches him into the ranks of Detective Chief Inspector. What follows this case is a career of 25 years of crime solving. The Met may not have appreciated the unorthodox Woodend's refusal to play by anyone's rules other than his own, and his talent for getting up his superiors' noses in record time, but Woodend can be proud at his retirement.

Fatal Quest, the last in the series, but detailing Woodend's first case, is a well-written English police procedural, full of wonderful characterizations and ironic humor (Woodend's wife refers to his "sweatin' over a hot criminal all day" when he arrives home). It's more than a simple story of how Woodend tracks down a murderer and becomes a DCI. It's a look at love in its many different forms and the heartache and havoc it can cause. It's a depiction of London five years after the war when bombed-out sites remain and people are scrabbling. The black market opened up new ways for criminals to make a living. Overt racism and corruption stain the Met, and some Met officers argue that organized crime is beneficial because powerful gangsters help keep crime under control. Against this backdrop, it's good to watch the decent Woodend work his first case. Then, in the first book of the series, 1998's The Salton Killings, Diane Thorburn is only the latest in a series of schoolgirls to be killed in 1950s Cheshire, and DCI Woodend will investigate. There are 18 books between these two.

I've already said goodbye to Colin Dexter's Chief Inspector Morse (The Remorseful Day), Ian Rankin's John Rebus (Exit Music), and Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander (The Troubled Man). There will be no more fantastic Superintendent Andrew Dalziel/Sergeant Peter Pascoe books from Reginald Hill. Happily, Woodend's successor, DCI Monika Paniatowski, now has her own series (beginning with The Dead Hand of History), but I'm hoping very hard that Woodend's disappearance at the end of Fatal Quest won't be an extinction like the one suffered by T. rex. Right before he hops on his train, Woodend says that in six months' time, he'll be running a little private detection agency in Spain with his old mate Paco Ruiz, whom we first met in Madrid at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in James García Woods's A Murder of No Consequence. I certainly hope Woodend is as good as his word.


  1. Georgette, I haven't read any of the Woodend books. Is the dialogue idiomatic throughout them?

  2. Peri, the dialogue is idiomatic, but not in a way that is too dense for easy reading. Charlie Woodend is a very appealing fictional character, and as I read the last few pages of FATAL QUEST, I felt as if I were saying goodbye to a good friend. The Sally Spencer books are extremely well done; Kirkus Reviews picked the third Paniatowski book (ECHOES OF THE DEAD) as one of the best mysteries of 2011. When LAMBS TO THE SLAUGHTER comes out this fall, Read Me Deadly will have an interview with the author.

  3. I'm delighted to see a blog about the Woodend books. That series and the Monika Paniatowski series that succeeds them are set in England in the 50s through the 70s and are highly entertaining. I look forward to Sally Spencer's interview. Nikki