I consumed the 202 pages of "Ragged Alice" in a single sitting, partly because I needed to know where Gareth Powell would take the story and partly because I was beguiled by the language.
"Ragged Alice" is the start of a new series featuring DCI Holly Craig, No, don't groan and say "not another one?" True she's a police officer who drinks too much and has poor social skills but trust me, she's not the typical Brit cop. She has an ability (you might call it a gift, she often calls ita curse held at bay only by whisky) to look into a person's eyes and know how far they've been eroded by guilt, shame and dissolution.
This is a short, fast-moving story, where the body count seems to rise with every tide, the violence is graphic and the spirits of the dead are always with those who have the eyes to see them.
One of the joys of the book for me was the wonderful language used to describe the place and its people. One chapter starts with a single sentence evoking a rainy day in Wales in a way that reminded me of Dylan Thomas:
RAIN FELL ACROSS THE bracken-brown hills like a biblical punishment. It dripped from the town’s slick slate roofs, overflowed the gutters and ran in gurgling torrents down the steep-sided streets.
The story features, Mrs Phillips, a flamboyant woman in her nineties who makes an immediate impression. Here's how her first meeting with DCI Craig is described:
An old woman waited on the hotel steps. She wore a man’s white tuxedo jacket over a lilac ball gown and was smoking a cigarette.
´Are you the detective, love?”
Holly paused. The old girl must have been « ninety if she was a day. Her hands looked like sausage skins filled with walnuts. She leant her weight on a silver-topped cane and had slicked back her silver hair with fragrant pomade.
Isn't that a wonderful way to describe hands?
Later, when Holly Craig thinks back on Mrs Phillips, she describes her to herself as:
the living personification of the Victorian buildings on the seafront—their facades once proud and enthusiastic but now washed out, half-forgotten and clinging to past glories, their lungs ravaged by years of smoke, black mould and neglect.
I admire the aptness and exuberance of that.
I also like the small but telling ways in which life in a small town in Wales was evoked, for example, when DCI Craig is surprised that Mrs Phillips knows of something that happened only a few hours ago, the irrepressible old woman says:
“Oh, you know what this place is like, love. If you lose your virginity at lunchtime, someone will have found it and brought it home to your mam in time for tea.”
I recommend "Ragged Alice" if you're in the mood for a trope-twisting police procedural with a supernatural edge, a distinctive Welsh flavour and language that makes you go "I wish I'd written that".