The Communion of Saints – John Barlow

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John Ray’s thick dark hair was just the same, a little too long and wilfully unkempt. He was dressed just as she remembered: loose black suit with a white shirt open at the neck. Yet as they emerged into the chill of the late afternoon, she detected a difference in him, something subtle but undeniable. He still looked as if he’d just walked out of a casino at six in the morning. But the easy swagger was gone; it was as if he’d walked out of the casino because he’s lost everything.

Whenever John Ray’s name is mentioned, he’s described as “son of Tony Ray, the well-known local crime boss”. A year after witnessing his father’s murder, John is still coming to terms with the grief & the guilt. He’s working as a teaching assistant in Accountancy at Leeds City University, living in an apartment that’s fast becoming a rubbish dump, drinking & gambling too much, a functional alcoholic living alone. When Detective Chief Superintendent Shirley Kirk of the West Yorkshire police asks John to informally investigate historic abuse allegations being made about St Olaf’s boys home, he’s intrigued. He’s also very attracted to Shirley & their night together leads to complications for her professional life when a gossip website features them on its front page the next morning.

The abuse allegations have surfaced on an internet forum for St Olaf’s old boys. The target of the allegations is Colin Marsden, former St Olaf’s boy who made a fortune from a chain of sports stores after famously starting off sweeping floors in a supermarket. Colin had returned to the Home after leaving, supporting Father Dardenne & organising sporting activities for the boys. Marsden’s personal life has spun out of control after an affair with a young woman & his wife is divorcing him. His business also looks to be in trouble as someone seems to be manipulating the share market. Shirley & John both have a personal connection to St Olaf’s but she wants John to investigate informally because of the potential for scandal.

John’s investigations are complicated by his notoriety. When Father Dardenne is found dead, poisoned, after John had visited him, the local police are only too happy to take him in for questioning. Another suspect is Warren Clegg, a former St Olaf’s boy who has been active on the internet forum & was also seen at Father Dardenne’s home on the day of his death. A second suspicious death sends the investigation in yet another direction & John must navigate through a tangle of blackmail & lies to get to the truth.

The Communion of Saints is the third book in the LS9 series. I really enjoyed the first two books, Hope Road & Father and Son, & have been waiting impatiently for the third book. I love a crime series which is based on compelling characters & John Ray is one of the most compelling, ambiguous characters in crime fiction. The ambiguity of his character & his actions is always intriguing. He takes Shirley out for a very expensive meal but how does he afford that on a teaching assistant’s salary? John had handed over his family’s second hand car business to a distant cousin, Connie Garcia, spends a lot of money at the casino & buys very expensive alcohol. Where does his money come from? Shirley instigates an investigation into this as she’s not sure how far she can trust John. He trained as an accountant, trying to escape his family’s criminal empire, but could he be using those skills to fund his lifestyle?

I also loved Shirley Kirk. A woman in her fifties who has risen in the ranks of a chauvinistic profession. Close to retirement but not sure she wants to make that decision. The exposure of her relationship with John does her no favours & the office politics are fascinating. Who tipped off the gossip website? The timing could hardly be worse with the job of Assistant Chief Constable about to become available – a job that Shirley is well-qualified for. Shirley’s past & her links to St Olaf’s have an influence on the investigation & she’s not afraid to play both sides of the game – using her relationship with John (& investigating his finances) as well as calling in favours from her colleagues when necessary. She’s a confident woman & her attraction to John doesn’t get too much in the way of her duty. The minor characters are also fully formed, from the sympathetic Father Dardenne to Connie (loved catching up with her again. There’s a great scene between Connie & Shirley that was so tense as the two women sized each other up) & Warren who becomes entangled in something much too complicated for him to grasp.

The Communion of Saints is a page-turner. I’m sure I missed some of the clues because I was reading so fast. I certainly didn’t put it all together until the very end. The series is a little more hardboiled than most of the mysteries I read but the descriptions of violence are never gratuitous & easy to skip if you’re as squeamish as I am. I love character-driven stories & John Ray is definitely the driver of these books. Attractive, vulnerable but exuding a confidence that is attractive to women even as it irritates those who would love to see him take a fall. I’m really looking forward to the next novel in this compelling series.

Thank you to John for sending me a review copy. More information about John & the series can be found on his website.

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