Yellowhammer by James Henry - book review

Yellowhammer by James Henry
Yellowhammer by James Henry

The Brixton riots in London are squeezing police resources and the hot summer of 1983 is taking its toll… but the stakes are high for DI Nick Lowry when two bodies are found on his Colchester patch.

The local police force is faced with a complex investigation and it will be up to team boss Lowry to keep a cool head and unravel a dark mystery involving countryside rituals, dodgy dealings and dysfunctional families.

Welcome back to the retro world of James Henry’s intriguing DI Nick Lowry series which took off with a bang last year in Blackwater, an atmospheric, fast-moving, page-turner which put Essex firmly on the crime map.

James Henry (real name James Gurbutt) is best known for his successful Detective Jack Frost prequels which were praised by Philip Wingfield, son of the late R. D. Wingfield, author of the original novels, as capturing his father’s style ‘superbly.’

And this new series brings us time and place with the same impressive authenticity, recreating perfectly the mood, politics and tone of the Eighties and the sometimes maverick policing methods that were a hallmark of the period.

At the helm is DI Nick Lowry, an old-fashioned, intelligent copper whose well-honed powers of detection and gut instincts take him where others might fear to tread. Unlike his bosses, Lowry likes to ‘absorb’ a crime scene, his experience feeding into his sometimes offbeat methods of investigation.

And he certainly has his work cut out when he is called to Fox Farm, nestled in the countryside at Coggeshall, near Colchester. The charming old farmhouse would seem to be a rural idyll but two corpses have been found on the same morning and suddenly it appears neither picturesque nor peaceful.

It all started when 12-year-old Alan Ward, who is holidaying with his cousins at Fox Farm, were playing hide-and-seek in the grounds and the boy saw a fox tugging at something on the railway embankment. Only seconds after discovering there is a body, Alan hears the unmistakable sound of a gun blast which sends the rooks flying from the poplars surrounding the farmhouse.

A body in the kitchen belongs to the owner, celebrity historian Christopher Cliff, who appears to have taken his own life with an antique shotgun, but no one can identify the dead man found on the railway line near the property boundary.

For DI Lowry, the two deaths are just the half of it. The fact that County Chief Merrydown was a college friend of Cliff’s means that Lowry is now, in turn, under scrutiny from his severely stressed and singularly unsympathetic boss, Stephen Sparks.

Helping Lowry with his enquiries are DC Daniel Kenton and WPC Jane Gabriel but Gabriel needs direction if she is to begin a career as a detective while Kenton, who appears focused solely on beginning a relationship with Gabriel, needs distraction.

Both the heat and the investigation soon intensify as the team find themselves interrogating enigmatic neighbours, antiques merchants, jilted lovers and wronged relatives whilst negotiating the caprices of Sparks whose attitudes remain as dated as Fox Farm’s antiques.

This is a tricky and dangerous case… and one that they must solve in the fastest time possible.

With its superbly portrayed rural backdrop and fascinating cast of characters – from the bereaved children and fragmented families to the strange neighbours and shifty acquaintances – Yellowhammer dishes up another engrossing slice of deep and dark Essex noir.

Henry is adept at plotting and there are plenty of surprises along the way as Lowry slowly but surely digs his way through a tangled web of lies, deliberate obstruction and false trails to unearth the truth behind the deaths at Fox Farm.

It’s always best to expect the unexpected with a James Henry novel and Yellowhammer won’t disappoint.

(riverrun, hardback, £14.99)