Death Studies from Linsday Ashford is the next in her Megan Rhys (forensic psychologist) series after Strange Blood which was shortlisted for the 2006 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year.
Strange Blood included quite a bit of trauma to Megan and members of her family, so it’s not a surprise that Death Studies opens with a relocation to Borth on the west Wales coast. Megan is taking a break, mixing attendance at a conference with a small holiday. She’s staying with her sister Ceri, who has moved there with her family and taken a job as a reporter with the local newspaper.
In a nutshell: a corpse is pulled from a pool and Llŷr, a local academic (his subject of choice: Death Studies, hence the title), wants to protect it from an immediate post mortem, as he believes it may be thousands of years old. But later, another body turns up at the hospital where the body is stored. Megan may be on holiday, but she can’t ignore the summoning of her own curiosity. Neither can she refuse the calling of the local police…
This is another nice mix of "the professional and personal collide" from Ashford, with no feeling of contrivance. Megan and her sister Ceri are very human: they work hard and are also attracted to men, sometimes with questionable taste, often through work, but that’s life as we know it. Llŷr is an oddity from the start, calling out to be fully understood and Ashford also introduces a new character, Chief Superintendent Nia Jones. Nia is sharp and business-like, wasting no time on small talk. She’s also overweight. Some of Ashford’s descriptions may offend the sensitive, but I found them lovingly observant, bringing a wry smile to my face:
"The policewoman grasped the wheel like a Sumo wrestler grappling an opponent."
The plot moves on down a windy route, introducing a few suspects and it’s not until the end that you get a sense of the strands coming together.
Interestingly, Ashford’s research for this novel led to a "double-take" moment on reading. Megan’s conference opened with these welcoming words from the local Detective Superintendent:
"On behalf of Dyfed-Powys Police, I’d like to welcome you all to this conference on Sex Offenders… As I’m sure you all know, the Dyfed-Powys area has a higher concentration of sex offenders per head of population than any other part of Britain…"
The novel, please be assured, does explore this phenomenon.
My only criticism of this novel, and based on something that I didn’t find in Strange Blood, the previous novel is this series is that to move the plot along, Megan’s thoughts on "facts to date", re-caps and "where are we know" came across as a bit clunky and imposing – it’s better to let the story tell the story.
I read this week, that until now, Martina Cole’s novels had been considered too "parochial" for the US market. I consider Ashford’s series to be close to that with this novel. Wonderful as it is to have the Welsh setting and so many Welsh names for the characters, plus a lively comparison to a character in Emmerdale (a UK soap series) along the way, it’s all tightly wrapped in a blanket of "too close to home". Megan’s base of Wolverhampton is also not a location to attract a broader audience. I think that Ashford may lose out on a broader reading audience because of this and she doesn’t deserve to.
Ashford has a nicely developing series here. The novels make for intriguing "whodunnits", with wonderfully depicted and real characters with real lives. The plots are good too, never too complex to make you feel you need to read the book again and never simple. I think Ashford deserves a much wider audience for this series.
I enjoyed Death Studies and look forward to reading more about Megan Rhys.