Short days, long nights, shivery-cold air: perfect reading weather! Even better, a perfect time to discover—then binge-read—a top-notch mystery series: Peter Grainger’s “DC Smith” books. A helpful suggestion from Amazon’s “you-might-also-like” elf (aka the algorithm that never sleeps) led me to Time and Tide (Covey Publishing, 2017), the latest entry in this seven-book run. After I finished it, I wondered how in the world I’d overlooked the earlier works, and set out to read them in order.
In DC Smith, Peter Grainger has created a protagonist who’s likely to resonate with anyone who’s mature in his or her career and feeling under mild assault by twenty-somethings, technology, and the bureaucratic striving of others. Smith, a thirty-plus-year veteran of the Kings Lake Central police force in Norfolk who’s approaching retirement age, is in many ways a throwback to an earlier age of policing.
Smith prefers notebooks to iPads, and uses a fountain pen to write in them. He resists owning a smart phone, and would rather analyze data on his own than read emailed reports on it from civilian contractors. He deeply misses his wife, who died before the series started. Fortunately for him, he’s supported by a couple of loyal and tech-savvy subordinates and an associate he trusts implicitly. His humor is subtle and his grasp of the English language and its peculiarities is inspirational (not to mention unusual in this context); I particularly enjoyed his wordplay.
In Time and Tide, Smith and his team grapple with the mystery presented by a body floating in a Norfolk estuary. First sighted by a teenage girl, a reluctant passenger on a wildlife tour boat, it had washed into deeper water from one of the many creeks that wind through the area’s broad, flat saltmarshes. The well-dressed man had empty pockets—nothing to identify him, or where he’d come from—and two broken legs, making it unlikely he’d accidentally fallen in.
As the story moves through the process of determining who the victim was and why he died, it becomes clear that the roots of the crime are buried in the past—specifically, in the past of a local woman, a one-time celebrity whose star had blazed then disappeared years before. Smith pieces evidence together almost intuitively, capitalizing on his years of experience and his ability to decode human nature.
As in the series’ earlier books, there’s also a second thread to the story, one related to Smith’s personal life and meditations on how he wants to spend the time remaining to him. His observations are thought-provoking: “Too much was changing too quickly now, and at the same time he was losing his ability to adapt to change. A natural process, just the way of things, and if one resists it for too long one becomes bitter and then foolish and then a danger to others.”
One of the potential downsides of reading a series in uninterrupted succession is the possibility that you’ll begin to notice places where the author repeats, or sometimes even confuses, points made in earlier books, where the language closely echoes from book to book, or descriptions are repeated almost verbatim. That doesn’t happen here; Grainger takes DC Smith flawlessly through seven books, which seem to span a period of roughly two years in six-month intervals, cleanly linking and cross-referencing from book to book.
In the first—An Accidental Death—Smith is a widower pondering retirement. Across books two through six, this question remains open, and in the seventh, it’s answered. And of course, crimes are committed and solved, characters develop, grievances are aired and addressed.
About halfway through my reading binge, I realized that with each book, Grainger was adding to Smith’s backstory: his time in military intelligence (which comes back to haunt him in book five, In This Bright Future), his career as a policeman, his personal life. In An Accidental Death, it’s clear that Smith has sustained a dramatic reduction in rank, from a command position to detective sergeant, but the reasons why aren’t provided. The patient reader will learn what happened, however, at what feels to be the right point in the extended narrative.
Grainger is a thoughtful, orderly story-teller, one who doesn’t try to trick or mislead, but still manages to surprise. The dialog is natural, the interactions are believable, and there’s no gratuitous gore or emotion-churning deviancy. (A subset of the police procedural genre explores some very dark places—Jo Nesbø and Val McDermid’s compellingly readable books, for example—but not everyone has a tolerance for that kind of puzzle.) Threads are woven and connected most satisfyingly.
Any long-time fan of the genre, particularly books set in the UK and Scandinavia, keeps an eye out for new entries by Ian Rankin (John Rebus), Ann Cleeves (Vera Stanhope, Jimmy Perez), Peter Robinson (Alan Banks), Elizabeth George (Thomas Lynley), Camilla Läckberg (Patrik Hedstrom), not to mention Arnaldur Indridason (Erlendur Sveinsson, Iceland), Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch, US), and Louise Penny (Armand Gamache, Québec). The list is long and addicting—even longer if you take into account those by now-deceased masters such as Henning Mankell (Kurt Wallander), Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse), P.D. James (Adam Dalgliesh), and Ruth Rendell (Inspector Wexford). And this isn’t even close to an exhaustive tally of premier writers and their memorable law-enforcement characters (too few of whom are female, alas).
If you’re not familiar with Peter Grainger and DC Smith, I strongly recommend adding this set to your list, asap.