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Death Toll (Detective Shaw Mystery) by Jim Kelly
Cover Artist: Photo & Illustration: David Baldeosingh Rotstein
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Minotaur Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312573522
Date: 21 June 2011 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Interview: Jim Kelly / Show Official Info /

In the Flensing Meadow Cemetery of King's Lynn, graves are being relocated as part of a flood-prevention project. During the excavation of the grave belonging to Nora Tilden (a woman murdered by her husband Alby), the skeleton of a young man of mixed race is found lying twisted near the top of the casket lid. While investigating this grisly murder that occurred nearly thirty years ago, DI Peter Shaw and DS George Valentine uncover a group of skin heads, a cult of religious fanatics, and an incestuous, morally bankrupt family. The death toll mounts as dark secrets are revealed and a treacherous past returns to haunt those responsible for murdering a man who refuses to stay buried.

Death Toll is Jim Kelly's best, most intriguing novel yet in his popular Inspector Shaw series. It has the same cold, dark, creepy atmosphere that was the trademark of his previous novels, Death Wore White and Death Watch. Once again, the odd couple team of Shaw and Valentine are investigating a hideous crime involving a corrupt family. The family that lies together stays together. Unfortunately, in this novel, the word "lies" has two connotations. I thought only first cousins kissed in the Deep South of the Good Ole USA; it seems they also do it in Merry Olde England. This novel has more lust, betrayal, hatred, and vengeance than a television soap opera. The characters seemed so real. I kept asking myself, "How did Jim Kelly create such despicable people?" Needless to say, I stayed up late reading this novel until my eyes blurred.

The case of a murdered man of interracial parents becomes very personal for Peter Shaw. He is married to a black woman, Lena, and together they have a child, Fran. Swallowing his pride, he must exercise self-control when interviewing racist men who eat and drink at the Flask, a local pub that oversees Flensing Meadow Cemetery and was once owned by Nora Tilden. Shaw, who is a devout atheist, must also exercise self-control when interviewing bigots at the nearby Elect of the Free Church of Christ the Fisherman, a close-knit cult of which Nora was a prominent member. Racists not only drink at the Flask but they are politically active in the Party of English Nationalism (PEN); however, in lieu of being openly hostile towards blacks, they are more belligerent towards migrant workers, which, sometimes, seems to be the case here in the USA.

The setting for Death Toll is a cold desolate one as it was for the series' previous installments. However, the time frame for this one is less than two weeks before Christmas; in fact, the climax occurs on Christmas Eve. (This is my favorite time of the year; I love mystery and horror novels/films with Christmas settings.) The streets of King's Lynn are strung with festive, holiday lights. At Christmastide in Wells-Next-the-Sea, Santa Claus is visiting the harbor on a boat drawn by inflatable, floating deer; Fran desperately wants to see him. The Christmas holidays are suppose to be a peaceful, joyous time; unfortunately, for everyone involved in solving the mystery, the holidays become a horrifying ordeal. The killer's identity is kept a secret until nearly the last pages. Was I shocked? I had my suspicions but I never had any irrefutable proof.

I'm happy to see that Shaw and Valentine are getting along better than they were in Death Wore White. Their professional relationship has improved; I seriously doubt they will ever become bosom buddies. They have so little in common. Fortunately, they are getting closer to convicting Robert Mosse, a wealthy, celebrated solicitor, for murdering nine-year-old Jonathan Tessier thirteen years ago. This case has tied the two men together and has served as a back story that has continued from the first novel to the latest one.

Death Toll can be read as a standalone but I recommend reading the entire series from the beginning because each novel builds upon the preceding one. In Death Toll, not only does the reader learn that Shaw is growing closer to his partner but he is also becoming closer friends with his other coworkers such as the very standoffish, professional Dr. Justina Kazimierz who performs the autopsies.

I was highly impressed to learn that DI Peter Shaw is a sketch artist who studied forensic art at the FBI college in Quantico, Virginia. He is able to take photographs of the skull found in the grave and sketch the murdered man's face. The reader will be pleasantly surprised as I was to be introduced to DS George Valentine's sister, Jean Walker, who served sandwiches at the Flask when Nora Tilden was murdered. Jean assists her brother with solving the murder.

Death Toll is an engrossing, fast-paced novel that fans of British mysteries will definitely not want to miss. The more I read from it, the more difficult it became to put down. An exotic setting, unusual characters, a bizarre mystery and grotesque deaths make this novel a winner. CSI fans will also want to read Death Toll for the great police and forensic science procedures depicted within it.

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