The opening scene of Valerie Laws's crime novel The Operator is one of the most unpleasant I have ever read. A boy lies on the examination table with a badly broken leg: the surgeon is examining him. The surgeon's expert fingers know exactly where to probe – but their aim is to hurt and not to heal. The boy is greeny-white with agony: his mother, watching helplessly, suffers almost as much as he does. The surgeon relishes every moment, a squeeze here, a small twist there – every additional wave of inflicted agony feeds his sense of power. And when the session is at an end, the mother reminds her son to “Thank the doctor, dear” – and the boy does. If ever there was a character I wanted DEAD it was that surgeon.
But he is not the Operator of the story's title and I have to say I was glad of that. As a reader I couldn't have stood too much more of such subtle, brilliantly conveyed sadism. Valerie Laws is a powerful writer with a high level of anatomical knowledge – I would recommend her poems about dissection, medical specimens and the brain in the collection All That Lives – but she also has a quickness and a sense of humour that prevents her from serving up an undiluted horror novel. The Operator is the second in her series of Bruce and Bennett investigations featuring the antagonistic, sexually attracted Erica Bruce (homeopath, journalist, fitness freak, recovered anorexic) and the harrassed, competent, good-looking police officer, Will Bennett. They met in The Rotting Spot, a murder mystery set on the coast in the North East of England, an area Laws knows well and evidently loves. It's bleak, it's beautiful, it's also tawdry and suburban. One of the most memorable scenes in The Operator involves a near-drowning in the wild waters off the town pier but the intense jealousies around membership of the exclusive local golf club are equally important in providing possible motives for the series of crimes committed.