Review published on July 29, 2016.
Ben Chivers, almost two years old, has gone …. he has been snatched from a shopping centre. Also “gone” is DI Roger Bailley who, in the process of gender realignment, has just taken two weeks off work to prepare for his future life as a woman and has now returned to duty as DI Robyn Bailley. She had hoped to ease herself in gently but, on her first day back at work, she is thrust into the limelight in this high profile case. Although her colleagues had been informed of this change by the Superintendent, she has no way of knowing how they are going to react to her. Neither does she know how she will adjust to doing her job as a woman; will she retain the same skills she had as Roger, or will these desert her. What very quickly does becomes clear as the search for Ben continues, is that both the media and her colleagues have the same doubts. So too does Ben’s mother Melissa, a single mother and a career-driven lawyer who belongs to the Church of Immaculate Purity, a sect with a deep belief in evil and hell and which is intolerant of anyone who does not conform to their ideas of “normal.” She regards Robyn as little short of an abomination and so it is little wonder that their interactions are full of suspicion and tension.
An added stress for Robyn is how her daughter Becky, who is away at university, is going to react because she has yet to respond to the letter Robyn sent to explain her decision to take these first steps in living life as the woman she has long known she is. Will Becky be able to make the adjustment to seeing her father living life as a woman; how will they negotiate this difficult transition?
This is a fascinating and immediately engaging story which follows the adjustments Robyn needs to make as she embarks on her new life. She is thrown in at the deep end as not only does she have to take charge of the search for a missing child, but also of two other investigations; to discover the identity of a body found in a disused warehouse and a series of burglaries targeting elderly people. It became clear as the story progressed that the author had a very good grasp of police procedures and was able to convey how much of police work has to focus on rather mundane, painstaking gathering of information in order to achieve results. However, it also showed that it is sometimes a chance remark which will lead to a breakthrough in a case. I thought that at times the focus on the burglaries was something of a distraction from what I regarded as the main story but, on reflection, I think this probably highlighted the fact that policemen are often frustrated in their efforts by the fact that resources are all too often stretched.
The paramount need for trust and mutual support within the team of police officers was very effectively explored through the progress – at times lack of – in each case, as well as through the adjustments members of Robyn’s team had to make to their new “Guv”. Whilst it highlighted how tensions and frictions within the team threatened to affect the progress of the investigations, it also reflected some moments when a shared sense of camaraderie had a very positive benefit on members of the team. I enjoyed the well-executed development of the story and felt convinced by the balance between the rather boring slog of police procedure and the moments of real tension. I also thought that all the characters were well-realised and credible.
I thought that the problems faced by people struggling with gender dysphoria were tackled in a sensitive and insightful way, although I have to confess that I did find that there were just too many references to the problems caused by the discomfort of groin strapping – the first two or three references would have made the point clearly enough! At times Robyn’s preoccupations with hair, make-up, how to cope with the need for a handbag and how to negotiate all the problems of wearing unfamiliar clothes felt rather distracting but, on reflection, this was probably a fairly accurate portrayal of how distracting such issues were for the character. The issues of bigotry, prejudice, fear and potentially violent reactions, which gender-dysphoric individuals are likely to face were incorporated into the story in a convincing and thought-provoking way. I would have like to have been given more insights into what had led Robyn, after so many years of living as Roger, to make this momentous decision but, as this is the first book in what seems likely to become a series, no doubt this is an issue which will be explored further. I certainly look forward to getting to know Robyn and her colleagues much better!
I think that this is a book which has huge potential as a choice for reading groups, particularly as there is so much contemporary interest, and controversy, about the subject of gender-dysphoria.
Linda Hepworth 4/5
He’s Gone by Alex Clare
Impress Books 978-1-907605-87-1 pbk August 2016
Read Alex Clare’s piece for our ON MY MIND strand: Reading for Inspiration