So the Doves by Heidi James

Review published on March 7, 2018.

This is a book with hidden depths. It’s a crime story, a murder mystery but more than anything it’s about Marcus, the central character and the man he becomes. The youthful events that shape the adult. It’s about memory and loss, not necessarily death but absence. Most crucially, it’s about Marcus’ friendship with Mel. The chapters dealing with his youth in 1989/90 are evocative and tender, the chapters in the present have a realism and insight. This novel has a lot of charm and is so readable – it will stay with you.

Marcus is a journalist, he believes in scientific theory and a kind of skewed determinism (opposite and equal reactions per Newton’s third law for example). So he’s a little bit mixed up when things he can’t explain and rationalise start affecting his life. He’s about to face the most challenging of times because current trauma brings the past back to life.

The novel is narrated in the first person by Marcus. Heidi James has created an intimacy with this form. We not only have access to Marcus’s perspective but an insight into his psychology. Marcus tells us he lost Melanie when he was only seventeen, in 1989, why this matters so many years later is not clear, but we soon learn that Marcus is going home and memories and events will bring up old feelings, vulnerabilities and hopefully provide explanations of what happened back then. Melanie ‘Mel’ Shoreham, her of the untended nails and the lank greasy hair (hardly a glamorous introduction), catches Marcus’s eye when he moves to a new school Danner Comprehensive. He has left his public school under a cloud and isn’t popular but that doesn’t matter to Mel. The two form a relationship, a sort of pact against the world, Marcus is exploring his sexual identity and only Mel doesn’t judge him.

Twenty years later, Marcus has been fated in the press world for his exposé of the St Clair Bank and its links to terrorism. His stock has risen and the Sentinel’s sales are up.

“Here he is, our man of the moment, scourge of the corrupt, crusader of the truth! I don’t know how you do it, but I’m f****** glad you do.”

The editor, Edward Campbell, beams when Marcus comes into the office. The St. Claire money trail leads to Libya. Trades that finally wind up as cash for arms purchased from a British company that just happens to be part owned by the St. Claire family. QED corruption/money laundering/terrorism.

When a murder is uncovered in Medway, Kent, Campbell has decided to send Marcus back to his home town to investigate, he says it’s a sort of holiday, a reward. A body has turned up on farm land cleared for the Cross Euro Speed Link. The government, the French and certain financial interests are angry that the project has been put on hold while the investigation gets under way. We are privy to Marcus’ first impressions on being home: “….the decommissioned dockyard a victim of Thatcher’s government, all gussied up now as a museum.”

James is good at painting the landscape. Then and now, the political and social change.

At the crime scene Marcus catches the eye of DI McMahon, there is a connection there. He grabs a word with Williamson, the disgruntled site manager. A man under pressure from the board and the French side of the operation, he’s angry at the green objectors and the lack of ministerial support. At the press conference the early speculation is that the body could be a policeman long missing or that there is a connection to corruption and theft of EU funds. Marcus doesn’t think that the story will go anywhere but events at the paper in London keep him in hiding in Kent. His mother disturbs his peace of mind with a phantom sighting of Mel, but Mel has been gone for twenty years. Now the St. Claire thing is blowing up in Marcus’ face, the editor suspends him, denies his involvement in the preparation of the story and Marcus’ contacts are being called into question. For Marcus, it’s a conspiracy to hush the matter up and he is being set up as the fall guy.

The unflattering introduction to Mel makes their relationship seem real, these are the pair in the corner of the classroom, the loners. Mel is brash, intelligent, rebellious and a strange companion for public school drop-out Marcus but like all teenagers they find those things that unite them. It’s 1989, The Vinyl Exile record shop, discovering Nirvana, having a Morrissey haircut, sharing chips and pinching from Woolworths. All brilliantly evocative if you are of a certain age. It’s coming of age tale, maybe a first love. It’s about class, Mel’s friend Georgie accuses Marcus of sounding like a newsreader off the telly. It’s about sexual identity and gender. It’s about reconciling with the past, and acknowledging that who we are is a product of that past.

I don’t want to say much about Marcus, the narrator, for fear of plot spoiling but you will get a sense of him early on, enough to realise that Marcus is not a straightforward unreliable narrator but he is unclear in his own mind, on the verge of a breakdown and he is also keeping secrets. Memory is not what happened but how what happened is remembered, they are not the same thing. Mel I could wax lyrical on; brave, unconventional, intelligent, free spirited and resilient, a great character.

The themes of conspiracy pan out in a different way than you might anticipate, the sense of conclusion is not as it might often be in a conventional thriller. There is a lot of slight of hand, getting you to focus elsewhere before a wider truth emerges. Character always leads not plot.

So the Doves is original and very readable, good for a reader’s group and there is a guide online at www.sothedoves.com.

Paul Burke 4/4

So the Doves by Heidi James
Bluemoose Books Ltd 9781910422359 pbk Sep 2017

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