Monday, 30 December 2013

The Operator by Valerie Laws reviewed by Julia Jones

The Operator (Bruce and Bennett Crime Thriller 2)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.

Bruce and Bennett have had an affair but (currently) it is over. Their complicated feelings for one another do little to promote clear thinking but in The Operator the reader is with Erica. She is involved with crimes by accident, initially but being an awkward, passionate, stubborn character, the more she is advised to leave detection to the professionals, the less inclined she is to do so. Erica's mix of obsessive self-searching, impetuosity, obstinacy and prickly defensiveness provides the special pleasure of The Operator. The idea of the novel is excellent as is the evocation of place, the twists of the plot and the depiction of minor characters, especially Stacey, Erica's self-appointed 'intern'. Erica, however, is unique. She hovers on the brink of being the most irritating character ever to make the life of a young policeman difficult but she is quick, funny and intensely human. I was uncertain about her in The Rotting Spot, in The Operator I have succumbed. I think she'll continue to grow so, much as I like her current squeeze, I hope there's a third novel on the way and that detective Bennett might be given another chance.
The Rotting Spot (A Bruce and Bennett Mystery)

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