It's difficult to underestimate the importance of a debut novel. To the author, it's a baby, merely one that tends to take a lot longer than nine months to birth. It's a statement, to the world and the industry, both that they're ready and they're able. And, riskiest of all, it's a marker which can never be unmarked; this is mine, it says, and it will always be where I started.
Well, J. V. Baptie started here and she started well. 'The Forgotten' is a police procedural and a character study that will begin a series about Helen Carter, who starts out at the rank of detective sergeant in Edinburgh's CID. For non-Brits, that's the Criminal Investigation Department, or the plainclothes division of police officers.
What makes the book special is that she isn't doing that in 2018, she's doing it back in 1977 or, in other words, the stone age when it comes to diversity in the workplace. Everyone, it seems, has their own clever little way to diminish the girl cop. They call her WPC instead of Sgt. They talk over her in briefings. And, of course, they're prone to pranks. This strong focus on misogynism could easily have become too much, especially for the male readership, but it never does. It helps that it's nothing personal, so never becomes bitter. The cops discount the possibility of a female killer, for instance, because there was too much violence. It's all just to help anchor us in the right timeframe.
That's not the only reason why the sense of time and place is so strong. Baptie sets her scenes incredibly well, taking us to a point in Edinburgh's history that predates her but with the impression that she witnessed it, if not experienced it, personally. Carter is as out of place at the station, for example, for having a psychology degree as for being a woman. That's not an approach that many of her colleagues appreciate, especially the old timers who got by for years with their fists just as much as their wits, but it's another way to help her lead the way into the future.
The case she finds herself on is a brutal one. A young man is discovered in an abandoned cinema, tied to a chair and bludgeoned to death. Nearby is a strange symbol and the business card of a private investigator. As you might expect, the body count grows and Carter, in collaboration with Det. Insp. Jack Craven, an experienced cop who is just a little more open to the idea of a woman on the force than most of their colleagues, she struggles to find the killer before that count gets too high.
As she does so, she has to face more than just naysaying colleagues. That PI, George Stanley, used to serve on the force, so there are rocks to turn over that might not place the police in a good light. His time was also spent working under Helen's father, a DCI or Detective Chief Inspector, so she finds herself walking a sort of moral tightrope, wanting to expose earlier corruption if it pertains to the case, but also hoping that it won't impact her father's integrity, which she's never had reason to doubt. But hey, turning over rocks isn't particularly known for helping reputations.
The mystery is well-structured but without a lot of red herrings; the race to the finish is mostly a straight line. It has to be said that detectives with their own series are always going to solve their cases, or they really shouldn't have their own series to begin with, but there's a sense of inevitability here because, in many ways, the case is a MacGuffin. What matters is Det. Sgt. Helen Carter, how she does her job and what she's willing to put into it to get her man. It's a decent mysterywe don't figure out whodunit too quickly or whybut it's a better character study.
And, as I write this, I have to add that it's not just a character study of the leading lady but the city in which she works. I wonder if Baptie chose 1977 for this debut novel because it was on a trough on the graph of history, a low point from which everything can grow: her lead character, the attitudes of her colleagues and the city in which they work. Everything seems broken here, not just the people but the places. Most of the locations for scenes are dilapidated, abandoned or outright devastated. While this first novel ably captures that as texture and background, I have a feeling that the series to follow will unfold gradually over improving times, economically, culturally and socially.
Certainly, what most readers will see as the worst aspect of the book plays into that. Helen is a believably tough lady with a low tolerance for nonsense. She has to be that way or she'd never survive in the misogynistic world in which she finds herself working. She knows that being as good as the others isn't enough; she has to be better to provide the emphasis needed to get respect. So, for her to be in a personal relationship with an alcoholic man is a strange choice for Baptie to make. It didn't ring true for me but where that relationship goes did and it helps to underline how this may not be so much the first in a series as a prologue to that series to come.
While the case is wrapped up and the killer stopped, there's a lot that's still open here. Everybody has a history, it seems, even if we don't know what it is, and that's a good place to end things. I'm looking forward to finding out more about Helen Carter, Jack Craven and some of the other people we meet in this novel, even some who were dead when it began. Hopefully we won't have to wait too long for the first sequel. ~~ Hal C F Astell