Talking to the Dead, by Harry Bingham
Talking to the Dead is the debut novel from former banker turned Writers Workshop supremo Harry Bingham. The first in a new series, it introduces us to DC Fiona Griffiths, a new and atypical heroine. In this, her first murder investigation, she wrestles with demons both internal and external, hunting the killer of a mother and daughter, and struggling to find her place in the police force.
Bingham is explicit about wishing to avoid genre cliches, and Griffiths is testament to this. Female, tee-total, under forty, and with an idyllic relationship with her family, she is the polar opposite of the prevailing archetype. Bingham’s desire to avoid creating a tick-box character is admirable, and while the conventions of character may still loom large due to their studious exclusion, Griffiths is indeed a breath of the proverbial fresh air. Her flaws are not divorce and dipsomania, but the potential to lose interest in her job, lapses in professional judgment, and a penchant for speeding. This is not to say she is a half-hearted police officer; Griffiths is an avenging oddball, a misfit around the station but as tenacious as a detective as could be imagined. All the better then, as while Talking to the Dead works on the level of a police procedural, its heart lies in character study. We are pulled inside Griffiths’ head and taken through its darkest recesses.
Character is thoroughly covered, and so is place. As a former resident of Cardiff, I still hold the place in enormous fondness, and Bingham’s book was a reminder of exactly why. Cardiff is a modern metropolitan city, nestling in a country rich in tradition and culture. The ferocity of Welsh pride is captured, with Celtic warriors lionised and the march of Anglicisation scorned. Suburban Cardiff plays home not just to cookie cutter, 2.4 children families, but to the horrors of criminality. In some crime writing, crime occurs in the underbelly of society; in Talking to the Dead, it happens next door while the neighbours turn a blind eye.
As a mystery, Talking to the Dead starts off with faithful attention to detail, maintaining plausibility in the early stages by reference to the politics of policing. Having started off in this vein, the lurch it makes towards the incredible in the later stages is a little jarring. The finale requires greater suspension of disbelief than many books ask of their readers, but this is by no means an insurmountable obstacle to enjoying it.
As a start to a series, Talking to the Dead shows great promise. Griffiths is a memorable and distinctive heroine, with a resonant and intriguing voice. Bingham’s fondness and outsider’s eye for Wales will surely sustain a powerful sense of place, and while he may need to decide just how much fantasy he wants to include in his work, there is every reason to believe Harry Bingham will have a hit on his hands with this series.