A newspaper delivery boy discovers a body at the side of the River Thames in London. Louise Pennel has been cut in half with great surgical precision. The country cannot be teeming with people of that degree of proficiency. Detective Inspector Anna Travis is brought into investigate and her former lover Chief Inspector James Langdon later joins the team to take charge. He, a great investigator, has a drink problem: as much an alcoholic as a workaholic. She has a boyfriend problem – a journalist Dick Reynolds who is prepared to burn sources. In a sense she is caught between two dicks: one in the sense of an investigator, the other a dickhead.
The investigating foray starts out as a hunt for clues. Nothing seems to take the team of detectives close to any potential suspect. Frustration kicks in. The killer starts playing mind games with the cops, and draws comparisons between himself and the Black Dahlia killer who tortured and murdered Elizabeth Short in 1940s Los Angeles in a case that became a cause macabre. It was an ill omen for the police because Elizabeth Short’s killer had never been apprehended. Then a phone call from a frightened woman claiming to know the identity of the killer.
A second murder occurs and the heat is on. So too is the hunt. From the midst of the horsey set the call of Tallyho goes up as the police think they might be closing in on their main suspect.
La Plante takes the reader inside the twisted world of the wealthy weird; the exclusive set of horsey people determined to ride anything, two legs or four. Their sleazy lifestyle and arrogance is laid bare. The sordid abuse is rampant and its impact on the mental health of the abused is chillingly illustrated. Sadism and domination saturate lives to the point of suffocation.
Most of the characters are run of the mill, stirring no great feeling one way or the other. Travis is the easiest to warm to. Disappointingly the prime suspect, arguably the one person with potential for the greatest character development, is too one dimensional and flat. He is ascribed too much power and is given an ability to evade just about anything.
An ideal book for a holiday or prison cell, it is easy to read, uncomplicated, and the plot digestible even with a bevy or two guzzled.
Lynda La Plante, 2010, The Red Dahlia. Pocket: London. ISBN 978-1-84739-983-0