DCI Barbara Black investigates the curious death of Adrian Mansfield, an artistic young man cast adrift in a boat on Amberton lake. He has been tied into a sitting position with an insulting sign hung about his neck. Murder is assumed, but Barbara's investigations take us into escalating family tragedy and Adrian's dark, antinatalist philosophy.
No-one seems surprised that Adrian has died. He was, we learn, obsessed with his dead sister, a talented young writer, who took her own life a few years earlier. So, indeed, is Martha Bottomley, a retired social worker and friend of the family, who has, according to Barbara's sergeant, a morbid interest in the deaths of young people.
Philosophical and thought-provoking detective fiction - a why rather than whodunnit.
He was young, handsome - foppishly so - and, most importantly, quite dead. A thin, long-limbed boy with curly dark - Roman? - hair and something of privilege and the public school about him. A nascent artist, an actor perhaps, the sort who might have fantasised or versified about his own death - though surely such Wertheresque musings would not have included an end such as this; for it was hardly a poetic or Romantic end, though it was distinctly possible it was a parody thereof. He had been cast adrift - on a boating lake, and not a very large one at that. The boat, a recreational rowing boat, had beached itself on an island of turf or sod that would just about have provided standing room for a single person or a small dog. Adrift and beached, indeed, without a scull or paddle. It was ten-fifteen or thereabouts on a sunny Wednesday morning in May.
He had - and we had to bring him back to shore to establish this - been tied in, into, a sitting position. Coloured scarves of a silk or satin material had been used to effect this. A black scarf had been tied to his right wrist, red to the left, and a longer mustard-yellow one had been looped around his neck; the other ends of the scarves had been secured to the oarlocks and prow respectively. I wondered at the significance of the colours. I was thinking of the German national flag. It was quite an elaborate arrangement. Care had been taken, effort made. Someone, or someones, had gone to a good deal of trouble. And to add insult to terminal injury, a white placard had been hung around his neck with the word "ARSE" painted on it in surprisingly neat black letters. Someone, again, had gone to the trouble. In the top stud-buttoned pocket of his shirt, we found a 16-25 rail-card identifying him as Mr A. Mansfield.
So a dead young man "sitting" on a boat with a placard about his neck declaring him an ARSE: what did it mean? Or represent? Or suggest? Murder with malice aforethought, or an elaborate prank gone horribly wrong? Something about the way his head was hanging - down but slightly to the side with the mouth open - made it seem as if he were chortling goofily, or chortling goofily had been his last act. He had, incidentally, also been reported missing - by someone prepared to go to some lengths to ensure that we, the police, took notice.
"Do you know who I am?" Well, no, not quite that. Nothing so straightforwardly crass. Desperation had played its part. What she had actually said was "I don't want to have to resort to who I am," and she was almost crying when she'd said it. Who she was, then, mattered in the sometimes tiresome business of getting things done, or so she hoped - the local MP's daughter, or so she claimed, a fact - assumed at first, and then confirmed - of sufficient interest to accelerate news of her arrival up the ranks.
It had, at the time, seemed like a disproportionate degree of worry for someone gone rather less than twenty-four hours. The desk sergeant had made the point, but she was adamant, and threatened to make a scene. She wasn't about to leave the station until she was sure something would be done. She didn't care if they locked her up. Her eye-liner was running again by this point, and it was already well-smudged. Her concern - misguided or not - was certainly genuine. Curious, though, that such a short absence should excite such extreme emotion.
Her name was Lisa Markham, and she was nine weeks short of her twentieth birthday. Darkly attractive, wavy hair worn long and untethered, there was something of the gypsy about her, though doubtless this was a look and mien carefully cultivated.
She said, "I want to see someone who matters." Imperiously, through tears.
"I like to think I matter, ma'am," the sergeant replied. He would have smiled had she not been so upset.
The obvious question or questions: Why are you so upset? What do you fear's happened to him?
The sergeant had asked the question - directly and in a roundabout way - the latter having to do with being sensible of and sensitive to her emotional state. And, it being an obvious and reasonable question, she had answered it after a fashion. He - the missing he - had stood her up, and he wouldn't do that. Not without ringing or sending a text, and he had done neither. Something had to be wrong. The sergeant was polite but unimpressed. Police officers come across lots of things people do that people who care about them are pitiably certain they wouldn't do, going missing being the least of it.
The sergeant asked another question, one that gets asked a lot: "Would you like a cup of tea, madam?" Since, in this case, it followed the impression, distinct if routine, that something was to be done, and done quite quickly, the answer, on the crest of a sigh, was "Yes - thank you."
Waiting is inevitable in a police station - even when who someone is matters. An interview room with aforementioned cup of tea. When I walked in, she might have been forgiven for thinking - perhaps a little contemptuously - that her level of mattering was oiling the wheels, or perhaps she took me for a tea lady offering a top up.
"Ms Markham?" I said.
"Detective Chief Inspector Black. I understand you have some concerns over the whereabouts of Adrian Mansfield."
"Yes," she said.
It is at this juncture that I, like the Devil in the song, beg your indulgence to introduce myself. My name is Barbara Black. I was in my mid-forties at the time of the events under discussion, and, according to my few friends, hopelessly middle-aged. They liked to jest about nominating me for one or some of those television programmes where fashionable, bossy ladies, or gay gentlemen, pull you about and tell you how to make the best of your bosom and bottom. I'm wont to wear knee-length skirt suits, which I regard as smart and formal, but which have been less generously described as schoolmarmish and frumpy. My hair is shoulder-length and mousy and - outside the private domain - invariably worn tied or clipped back. I had been a, the, DCI in Amberton for two and half years, having briefly been a DI in the Met. Amberton has a population of eighty thousand or so souls and a slower pace of life than the capital. Friends and colleagues had correctly assumed that I had craved a quiet, or quieter, life. I had, indeed, begun to find London brittle and dispiriting.
I considered Ms Markham and wondered what to do. Would it really be quite decent or prudent to tell her he was dead? Was she not already emotionally over-wrought? Of course, the issue of her concern for his welfare was now very pressing.
"Can I ask you, Ms Markham, why you're so inordinately concerned about this young man? Do you have grounds to fear for his safety?"
Ms Markham tilted her head slightly to the right, as though trying to gain another perspective on me, or give me the benefit of nebulous doubt. She made much of eye-contact while doing this, and then, as though reaching an unsatisfactory conclusion for all concerned, said, "He's dead, isn't he?"
I paused, long enough to assure myself that she wasn't about to unravel on the spot, and said, "Yes, Ms Markham, he is." And then, in a vulgar political world, a vulgar political question: "Does your mother know you're here?"
She snorted with contempt. "No, of course she doesn't. And the first thing she'll do when she finds out is consult her PR advisor. Damage limitation, you understand. She'll want to be seen to be standing by me, of course. You can't be too obvious about ditching your family for the sake of your political ambitions."
Melinda Markham MP, recently appointed junior minister for something or other. Ambitious, as most of them tend to be, and generally considered to be "on the up". Frequently pictured in the local press on walkabouts with senior members of the government, and twice with the PM himself. Not forgetting the locals, the Chief Constable had got a look in, as had some ordinary people, including two front-line officers, both of whom had smiled gamely for the camera.
Lisa Markham said, "I suppose I'm a suspect now." Indifferently, as though it would all come out in the wash without too much damage to the delicate fabric. "How did he die?" A not unreasonable question.
"He was stabbed," I said, which was true. He was; but we didn't yet know if that's what had killed him. Raymond had his doubts. A deep stab wound to the chest. Raymond suspected it might have been inflicted post-mortem. So - and this was very early speculation - drugged and drunk, he had been set up as a fool - an arse - in the rowing boat, and then someone with a grudge had come along and, as it were, plunged the dagger deep. Plunged and removed and disposed of. Did the tableau allude to something, I wondered - a myth perhaps?
"Where?" Testily, suggesting - quite correctly - that I was being less than forthcoming with the details. Surely, I thought, a pardonable trait in a police detective.
"The boating lake," I said. "Any idea what he was doing there?"
"Boating, I suppose. It's the weather for it."
"On his own?"
"Yes. Why not?"