Sure and Certain Death

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 September, 2009, 12:00am

Sure and Certain Death
by Barbara Nadel Headline, HK$285

British mystery writer Barbara Nadel, a self-confessed admirer of all things Turkish, generated a keen cult following with her dozen-strong series of tales of Istanbul police inspector Cetin Ikmen and his cronies. Once asked why the Turkish capital made such an ideal setting for crime fiction, Nadel spoke of history, population and diversity, but also said the city boasted 'lots of places to hide the bodies'.

Nadel's second series, of which Sure and Certain Death is the fourth book, is set in a location where bodies were easy to find: the East End of London during the sustained 1940-1941 aerial bombardment of Britain by Nazi Germany. The Blitz started with the bombing of London for 57 consecutive nights, with the east of the city bearing the brunt.

It is surprising then that Nadel has created undertaker Francis Hancock, the 48-year-old offspring of an English father and Indian mother, as her reluctant protagonist. One would expect Hancock to be too busy in his day job, as well as with trying to contain the demons and hallucinations that have haunted him since his stint in the trenches during the first world war, to have any time for amateur sleuthing. But, with younger men all on the frontline, and with the police force spread thin ... well, somebody has to do it.

The far-fetched story begins in February 1941, with Hancock and his assistant discovering the eviscerated body of a woman in a bombed-out house. It transpires that Hancock's god-fearing spinster sister Nancy went to school with the victim.

When a fourth body is found, Nancy admits to having been acquainted with all the victims. All once were 'White Feather Girls' - a pro-war group of young women who would approach any man of serviceable age seen out of uniform and give him a white feather as a symbol of cowardice. Worried that Nancy may be next for the knife, Hancock sets out to find the killer.

Though previous books in the series have been praised for painting an atmospheric and vivid portrait of the East End during one of its darkest times, Sure and Certain Death, to its detriment, is short on descriptive passages. Nadel relies heavily on vernacular-strewn dialogue to move the mystery along.