Review: Speaking Daggers by Lloyd Rees
Several of my bookish friends have concerns about me. They fear I am too bent upon pleasure rather than self-improvement when I pick up a novel, that I am too easily swayed by the appearance of a bonnet, a Welsh cob or some swash, ready to be buckled at a moments’ notice.
They also chide me for my love of a good strong narrative but I have, thus far, kept hidden from these censorious friends by most insidious vice.
As a critical reader, I should be able to be more objective but I cannot help it: I love a novel set in a place I know and like.
In fact, I sometimes use the mantra of an estate agent rather than a literary critic; location, location, location.
In my defence, a novel takes you to a place and forms a type of holiday and I certainly felt, after reading ‘Speaking Daggers‘ that I had been on a mini-break to Swansea.
This is a clever, well-plotted novel, with a relatable protagonist in DI Gus Reid.
When I discovered he was divorced and lived alone, I did sigh just a little, because that does seem to be the life circumstances of so many fictional detectives but rather than making his detective a tiresome enigma, Lloyd Rees has created a nuanced portrait of a human who is flawed, but not catastrophically.
His relationships with his colleagues rang true and varied subtly, giving us an insight into a Swansea police station inhabited by real people rather than the cardboard cut-outs which haunt some detective stories, particularly those which belong to the procedural genre.
DI Reid’s hollow relationship with his daughter seemed almost painfully real: this was the quiet fading of relationships undernourished rather than the operatic breach it might have been tempting to create.
DI Reid is not actually particularly simpatico and he generates the aura of an ordinary man doing his best.
For this reason, Rees’ decision to delve deeply into several other characters, over and above the detective and the murderer, seems adroit: I admired the depiction of Reid as a straightforward chap but would not have relished almost three hundred pages inside his head.
I fear I might, like Reid’s wife, have been tempted to leave.
However, the reader does come to understand Reid’s daughter, together with the young journalist, whose back story is featurelessly bleak, like Reid’s own and, of course, the murderer.
There is no need for me to issue a spoiler alert here because the murderer announces himself in italicised monologues very early in the story.
‘Speaking Daggers‘ is essentially a duel between a banal narcissist and a good man who does not rate his own abilities highly and as such, it is compelling.
A knowledge of Shakespeare is definitely a bonus for readers of this book as images, themes and language do play a part but even if your knowledge of The Bard runs no deeper than the odd episode of ‘Upstart Crow,‘ the richness given to the story by the ornate language is highly pleasurable.
DI Reid’s daughter is an academic at the University and so when a body is discovered and a quotation scrawled in chalk on a nearby wall, the case becomes a reason for the two to reconnect.
The relationship between Gus Reid and the city he polices is delightfully portrayed.
He knows Swansea well and is full of affection for the place but also understands the inhabitants and his colleagues well enough to feel some exasperation as they all tend to revert to type.
It is a novel in which place and specific geography play a distinct part: I could almost feel that slightly gritty wind which blows in off the sea with its hidden cargo of sand.
As a rule, I am not a fan of the serial killer story, for the simple reason that I subscribe to Hannah Arendt’s description of ‘the banality of evil.’
Most multiple murders are committed by those suffering from acute mental illness and much as I acknowledge the need to guard against such crimes, the criminal themselves often incite pity and repulsion in equal measure.
Lloyd Rees has succeeded in revealing, little by little, the nature of a true villain, a calculating, self-pitying Iago for our times, thrashing around for a motive which finally eludes him.
In short, this is a highly readable, well-conceived book with engaging characters and a rip-roaring, pacey plot.
However, had I been guilty of the proverbial crime of judging a book by its cover, I might not have picked it up. The book’s rather dated appearance might deter casual readers and it certainly gives little clue as to the intellectual heft of ‘Speaking Daggers‘.
I’m not asking for a cover depicting Shakespeare sailing over from the Mumbles but perhaps something a tad less generic would be better suited for this, the least generic genre novel I have read in a good while.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.