When a headless body is discovered on a popular jogging trail, Detective Inspector Bernard Watts and his team are plunged headlong into a baffling murder investigation. Why would someone stab to death a young woman on her daily run – and take her head?
When a close examination of the crime scene results in a shocking discovery linking the present murder to a past crime, criminologist Will Traynor is brought in to assist the police. Aware of Traynor’s troubled past and already having to deal with inexperienced rookie PC Chloe Judd on his team, Watts is sceptical that Traynor will bring anything useful to the investigation.
He’s about to be proved very wrong …
Dark Truths – billed as a ‘forensic mystery’ – is the first in a new series featuring criminologist Dr Will Traynor. Those familiar with A. J. Cross’s previous Kate Hanson series will encounter some familiar faces – despite being a Will Traynor mystery, the majority of Dark Truths is told from the perspective of DI Bernard Watts, formerly of the same Cold Case unit as Hanson – but, for those (like me) new to Cross’s writing, Dark Truths provides a perfect jumping off point in the form of a solidly crafted police procedural with an interesting focus upon the forensic aspects of police work.
Opening with the disturbing murder of a young woman on a popular Birmingham jogging trail, DI Watts and his team are plunged into the investigation of a possible serial killer when further body parts are found nearby. Suddenly finding themselves with a recently killed headless corpse and a killing field of historic skulls, Watts reluctantly seeks the assistance of forensic psychologist Dr Will Traynor. Traynor has a well-deserved reputation for brilliance – but the tragic murder of his wife ten years prior has also left him lacking in focus, difficult to work with and, on occasion, entirely unfocused on the matter at hand. Adding to Watt’s problems is rookie PC Chloe Judd. Keen, clever and overly quick to jump to conclusions, Judd’s constant questions and outspoken personality make her a challenging partner for the observational and somewhat stoic Watts. Aiding Watts and his team are pathologist Dr Connie Chong, head of forensics Adam Jenner and geoscientist Jake Petrie – supporting characters that, along with Traynor, help add the forensic element to this forensic mystery.
Cross combines a largely likeable and interesting mix of personalities with a skilfully plotted drama that offers plenty of revelations and twists. I enjoyed the focus on the day-to-day aspects of police work, from the manning of tip lines and organising of public appeals to the painstaking fingertip searches of fields and hedgerows. It was refreshing to read a book in which an investigation is depicted in real-time – forensic evidence can take days, even weeks to process, and the post-mortem results are not instantaneously available to the investigating team – as well as one where the pressures of man-power, office politics, and budgetary constraints limit the action that can be taken at any one time. This realism is well-handled however and is never allowed to slow the plot down – instead it gives characters an opportunity to interview key witnesses, or allows a moment during which their backstories or personal interactions can be developed.
I did have one minor niggle with Dark Truths – PC Chloe Judd was, for me anyway, an annoyance every time she stepped onto the page, especially at the beginning of the book. Whilst she mellowed by the end, it was frustrating to see a determined and career-focused female character somewhat stereotypically depicted as abrasive, difficult and, at times, downright unprofessional. She also seemed somewhat inconsistent – veering between making some good analytical points and jumping to increasingly rapid and wild conclusions – and it wasn’t until about halfway through the book that I began to feel as if her character was there to be anything more than either a sparring partner for Watts or a way of integrating exposition of the finer points of forensic police investigation. I hasten to add that Judd’s portrayal by the end of the book is much better – she mellows as a character and develops as an investigator to the extent that I’d like to see her return in future books in the series – but I’d be lying if I said that her initial characterisation did make getting into the initial chapters of Dark Truths more difficult for me.
The forensic aspects of Dark Truth might not be for everyone – those who enjoy their crime with a heavy thriller twist might find the action a tad slow in places – but personally I found the depiction of these aspects one of the most fascinating aspects of the book. A. J. Cross is an experienced forensic psychologist herself and her experience in the field really comes across in this novel – although, crucially, she never lets the story become bogged down in detail, instead adding just enough to add depth whilst also moving the plot along. I also really enjoyed the ‘cold case’ aspects of the book and the way the present-day murder added to the discovery of more historic crimes – and increased the complexity of the case that Watts and his team are handling. Having read Dark Truths, I’m keen to go back and read Cross’s earlier mysteries which, I believe, focus more on this cold case aspect.
Overall Dark Truths is a solidly constructed and skilfully written police procedural with an interesting focus on the forensic aspect of police work. It introduces a largely likeable team of investigators who, by the end of the novel, have begun to work together in a way that bodes well for future instalments in the series – and with one of two mysteries within the character’s personal backstories remaining tantalisingly unsolved. Fans of Val McDermid’s Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series, Ellie Griffith’s Ruth Galloway books – and of TV shows such as Criminal Minds – will find much to enjoy in Dark Truth‘s intelligent blend of forensic mystery, psychology, and police procedural, and I for one am looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Will Traynor, DI Watts, and their colleagues.
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My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Emma Welton from Damppebbles Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 27 February 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
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