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02 August 2017 @ 01:31 pm
Review of Unforgivable by Mike Thomas, pub. Zaffre 2017  

   He smiles. Calmer than he thought he would be. Shrugs off his rucksack and places it on the ground. Reaches inside and pulls them out. One, two, three. Enough for now.  Digs out his lighter, sparks it. Watches the dancing women, the happy families. Taps his foot and nods his head in time to the beat from a nearby sound system.
   Lights one of the fuses and tosses the IED into the crowd.

An IED is an Improvised Explosive Device (until fairly recently, Thomas was a policeman and still speaks the lingo).  The question haunting this book  - quite apart from whodunit and will the police catch them before they do it again – is what sort of person attacks a crowd of innocent strangers with such a deadly thing, and the answer is more various and more complicated than the police initially think. The usual Twitter assumptions – racist, extremist, loner, loser – crop up and some have a degree of truth in them, but none, in this novel, is a full answer.  One could point to likely motivations, yet these very factors also exist for other characters in the novel who do not react in the same way.  This is the sort of novel where a reviewer really does not want to commit spoilers, because not only is it a page-turner, it has at least two genuinely surprising twists midway when we, in the person of DC Will MacReady, realise something that wasn't obvious at first.  So I'll go no further down that road except to say that anger, and the various possible causes of anger and reactions to it, are key, and that in this respect, as in others, it is a very contemporary novel.

DC MacReady first appeared in Thomas's last novel, Ash and Bones, and though it is perfectly possible to read this one as a stand-alone, myself I would recommend reading Ash and Bones first (it's no hardship; I reviewed it here) because you'll then be more immediately au fait with our Will's complicated personal life. His wry, jaundiced attitude to his life, job, senior officers and fellow humans in general provides the trademark humour Thomas's fans already know:

Penarth didn't do sink estates. The closest it ever had – the Billy Banks flats, a failed sixties development of dog-turd-encrusted grass patches and pebble-dash the colour of smog – had been demolished at the tail end of the noughties to make way for stratospherically expensive apartments and townhouses. replete with private security patrols and a propensity amongst the occupants to wear sailor hats and shorts, possibly because at least three of the buildings offered a glimpse of the Bristol Channel.

This brings me to one of the stand-out features of this novel, its sense of place and time. I lived many years in Cardiff, and it may be that I reacted more strongly to it because of that. But I honestly think that even to readers who don't know the city, a sense of its vibrant multiculturalism, its consumerism, the contrast between its rich and poor areas and above all the effect of a hot summer on its mood, would come over.  Thomas's re-creation of it has the vividness and detail of someone who has not just walked and driven its streets, but done so with real observation.

In Ash and Bones, children and people's attitudes to them were extremely important and potentially redemptive. They figure in this novel too, but in Unforgivable it becomes clear that no factor in life – the presence or absence of children, being in a relationship or steering clear, getting on with one's parents or avoiding them – is a guaranteed panacea for anything. The frequent parallels between the habits, pursuits and problems of the law-abiding and the ungodly raise, again and again, the question of why people go one way and how easily they might go another.  The novel's ending illustrates this quite graphically, and in a way that may well raise a laugh, albeit a wry one.

The book's title might be taken to refer to the crimes it describes, but that depends on your viewpoint. For most of the time, we are in Will's point of view, but every so often – four times, to be precise – we go into another, and it is then that we see how things that most of us might put down to bad luck or our own fault become, in more damaged or twisted minds, "unforgivable", with dire consequences. I found this point-of-view shift really effective and convincing.

This taut, pacy, atmospheric account of events over five hectic days is as engaging and convincing as has become usual for this author. No doubt his police background is what makes him sound so in control of his material, but he is not content just to write what he knows; in this novel he is interested in what we can never wholly know, the inside of others' heads, and if we first read the novel as a page-turner, wanting to know "what happens next" (which I certainly did), it is the "why" that will be more in our minds when we re-read.