By Laura Wilson
A Capital Crime is a great piece of storytelling. I am glad of my policy of knowing nothing about the content of books before I read them, as had I known that this novel is based on a famous real-life crime, I might not have embarked on it. And I would have missed out.
It is 1950, six years since the traumatic events in DI Stratton’s life that happened at the end of An Empty Death. Stratton and his trusty sergeant Ballard are contacted by the Welsh police because a man has confessed to them that he’s murdered his wife at their previous house, in London. Upon investigation, it turns out that not only has this 19-year-old, pregnant woman disappeared, but so has her 14-month-old baby. Soon, the worst is discovered, and Stratton has to relive personal traumas while managing this case. A man is sent for trial, and the case seems cut and dried.
The main strength of this novel is the author’s sheer storytelling ability. Having established the crime plot, she turns away from that and to the character of Diana Calthrop, from the first novel in this series (Stratton’s War). Diana is soon to be divorced from her weak husband, and intends to make a new life for herself in London. This she does, very capably, soon landing a job at a film studio as assistant to a director. While she is there, she meets Monica, Stratton’s daughter, who is a make-up artist and who is also a major character in this novel. Monica, like her father, is very conscious of the class divide between her and Diana, but again like her father, is attracted to her. Diana, however, with her unerring instinct for disaster, embarks on a course that will bring her into a very different life to the one with which she’s familiar. There is a contemporary resonance to the knife-edge on which Diana lives, and her story is told with real passion and depth.
A few years pass. Stratton and his colleagues hear of one or two disappearances of prostitutes, but cannot make any headway in finding them. Suddenly, a terrible discovery is made, and the policemen are presented with the worst, most upsetting case they’ve ever seen in their careers – careers that have seen plenty of horrors while serving in London during the recently ended Second World War.
Stratton is an attractive, introspective character, conscious of his weaknesses and uncomfortably aware of his inability to communicate fully with Monica and his belligerent son Pete, now doing his National Service. He’s hampered by the conventions of the day, yet sensitive in a way that many of his contemporaries are not. A chance meeting with Diana at the Festival of Britain sends him into a confused state, yet this experience is nothing compared with the circumstances when they next meet.
The middle section of this novel was a compulsive page-turner for me, reading about Diana’s life and about the people she knew while working for the secret service in the War. I was intrigued by Monica and the setting of the film studio. The last part of the book focuses more on the awful crime case, from the point of view of the police investigation. I found this less interesting than the interpersonal stories of the Strattons and their family and friends, together with Diana’s circle. Perhaps that is because I find the true-life case on which this novel is based both repellent and tedious.
Laura Wilson has written an excellent novel in A Capital Crime. Her invented characters, whether central or tangential, are completely realistic and of their time yet with a subtle overtone of present-day perspective. Her observations of the social mores of the day are acute, and her cast-list (with the exception of the criminal) sympathetic yet unsentimental. Her settings are beautifully detailed and convincing throughout. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and so much hope that it will not be too long before the next episode in the life of DI Ted Stratton.
I am very grateful to the publisher, Quercus, for my copy of this book.
About the book at the author's website - including a free download of chapter 1.