Die With Me by Elena Forbes

Die With Me

by Elena Forbes

Published by MacAdam/Cage Publishing

341 pages, 2007

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Say Your Prayers

Reviewed by Stephen Miller

Detective Inspector Mark Tartaglia is out of sorts. His boss and close friend, Detective Inspector Trevor Clarke, is in a coma following a motorbike accident. He lays in his hospital bed “at the centre of a spaghetti junction of tubes and wires.” Tartaglia’s sister is forever trying to link the late 30-something homicide investigator with any single friend she can summon, and in Die With Me, British author Elena Forbes’ debut novel, our protagonist has been handed a very problematic case involving the apparent suicide of a moody and depressed teenage girl.

Gemma Kramer, whose body was found on the floor of London’s St. Sebastian’s Church, was only 14 years old, an introvert, and seemed like a textbook victim of self-destruction. She was discovered dressed all in black, and in the dreariest sort of house of worship:

The interior of the church was barn-like, with a high, vaulted ceiling ... The temperature was almost as cold as outside, and an unpleasant musty smell hung in the damp air, coupled with a sour strangeness. Decay, he thought. Things rotting away. The smell of neglect and penny pinching ... It felt used and uncared for. A sad and lonely place for a young girl to die.

What keeps Tartaglia from signing off on the suicide theory is the existence of incense, wine and candles in the choir loft of the church, the signs of date rape drugs in Gemma’s system, and the lock of hair that was shorn from the back of her head with a razor. A witness tells the DI that she saw Gemma kissing an older man shortly before entering St. Sebastian’s with him. It’s clear: she didn’t jump from the highest reaches of the church; she was pushed.

Die With Me tells the confident and suspenseful tale of a serial killer with eyes on emotionally vulnerable women, who murders and discards them without leaving a trace of evidence behind.

Tartaglia, while not as experienced as Clarke, and missing his mentor’s intuition, quickly discovers Gemma’s connection to two other girls whose deaths were written off as suicides. Both of those victims were, like Gemma, teenagers who fell from heights inside of churches and whose hair was cut in the same manner. And then, there was an older victim who plummeted to her death two years earlier from the top deck of a parking garage. Her death doesn’t exactly fit the developing profile, but it still manages to stick in Tartaglia’s head as being somehow connected.

Forbes, a former investment banker, develops her story in much the same manner as the late Ed McBain did his 87th Precinct books. Tartaglia is the lead character, but several other supporting players take their moments on stage and become fully realized in their own rights: Sam Donovan, Tartaglia’s partner, a combination of youthful energy and gut instincts; Fiona Blake, one of the department’s pathologists and Tartaglia’s onetime romantic partner; Superintendant Cornish, a career police bureaucrat whose skills seem to start and end with bureaucratic bootlicking; and Deputy Chief Inspector Carolyn Steele, an experienced investigator as tough and unyielding as her name, brought in when Cornish suspects that Tartaglia is in over his head. Many of these characters seem to have sprung from Central Casting, but while they could stand further shading, they work well together and produce a sum total of a very believable and compelling cast.

The killer in this yarn, called Tom, stands out as well. While this is certainly not the first time we’ve been allowed inside a psychotic’s head as preparations are underway for claiming the next victim, Forbes is smart enough to show us a slayer whose best-laid plans, even those involving human targets of inferior intelligence, can sometimes go badly awry. Tom’s bobbing and weaving seems as much luck as cold-blooded skill, and the suspense is ratcheted as a result.

First-time novelist Forbes propels this story forward expertly and deftly shifts her narrative to follow Tartaglia, Donovan, Steele and even, from time to time, the killer. It’s a bravura juggling act, difficult for experienced writers to pull off with aplomb, and Forbes is able to keep everything churning almost without a misstep.

Unfortunately, all this marvelous layering of characters and plot is in service to an ending that not only seems slapped on, but is profoundly disappointing and unsatisfying, leaving too many ends pointing to an inevitable sequel that’s been done before and seems gratuitous. It’s the only stumble in the book, but it’s one that made me wish Die With Me had ended two chapters earlier, with the reader imagining the final scenes.

This problem aside, Elena Forbes is clearly a talent to watch. Her story spans the parts of London not frequently visited by crime novelists -- the outer edges of the central city, amidst locations such as Shepherd’s Bush and Ealing. This brings Die With Me into the company of settings and characters who are solidly working-class and unfamiliar with the luxuries and predilections of their more cosmopolitan cousins. It’s a place well worth visiting this time, and I hope, again soon. | November 2007

Stephen Miller is a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet and has worked as a columnist for Mystery News since 1999, writing about new authors.