When you pick up DEADLY VIRTUES --- and if you love crime fiction, you really should --- please leave yourself enough time to read it twice. This is one of those deceptively simple books that goes down quickly, leaving a pleasant and entertaining sensation (think of a pitcher of lemonade on a hot summer afternoon) yet has a depth to it that is not immediately self-evident. To continue with my metaphor, it’s as if someone slipped some vodka in with the lemons. Is it that good? Yes.
Author Jo Bannister has an enviably loyal readership that has grown over her three decades of writing, though she perhaps has not achieved the commercial success to match the deserved critical acclaim she has received. She is a prolific author who, throughout the course of her over 30 novels spread out over several series and a number of stand-alone works, brings originality to each and every new offering. DEADLY VIRTUES stands by itself --- at least at this point --- introducing a new character named Hazel Best. And yes, she is. Best is a new recruit to the police department of the small town of Norbold, England. The department is noteworthy in that it has reduced its crime rate far below the national average. Credit for this is given to the zero-tolerance policy of Chief Superintendent John Fountain, who, during his decade of running things, has made Norbold an extremely unattractive place for lawbreakers. Or so it would seem.
"This is one of those deceptively simple books that goes down quickly, leaving a pleasant and entertaining sensation...yet has a depth to it that is not immediately self-evident."
As we learn early on, Fountain and the department just can’t quite solve the illegal drug problem in the town, a blot on a seemingly otherwise perfect record. In fact, crime isn’t a zero-sum game at all in Norbold, as is demonstrated early on when a group of punks accost and attack a local character named Gabriel Ash --- known as “Rambles with Dogs” --- and seemingly gets away with it. When Best and her partner happen across the aftermath, they take Ash and his dog Patience back to headquarters for observation.
While he’s resting in a holding cell, a second-year law student named Jerome Cardy is brought into the station, under arrest for leaving the scene of an automobile accident. Cardy’s actions are a puzzle; the accident was not his fault, and he seemingly had nothing to gain by leaving the scene. But leave he did rather than risk interaction with the police, which occurred anyway. Cardy tries to tell that to Ash while the two men and one dog share a cell, and Ash, although concussed, remembers Cardy’s cryptic words. Some time later, Cardy winds up in a cell with a brutal maniac and is murdered. It appears to be an accident, one that Fountain takes pains to cover up. But there is more to it than that, as slowly but surely becomes evident as the book unfolds.
I was reminded of one of those sets of nesting dolls, where you are constantly surprised as you open each one. Ash, who even before that evening was regarded as being a bit off mentally, has difficulty finding anyone who will even listen to him, let alone believe him. He discovers a somewhat reticent ally in Best, who is the new kid on the force and is reluctant to put her fledgling career on the line for what may or may not be a worthy cause. And if she does the right thing, what effect will it have, in a town where Fountain, with some cause, is regarded as a hero?
DEADLY VIRTUES put me in the mind of the television series “Banshee,” due in no small part to its deceptively quiet setting, interesting characters, and Norbold's dark, hidden underbelly. Hopefully this book will garner Jo Bannister the popular attention she has earned and deserved for years.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 26, 2013