Today I’m taking part in the blog tour for Where the Truth Lies and I have a gripping extract for you. I love M J Lee’s books and would normally review but sadly other committments have meant I don’t have time at the moment, though it is on my to-read list. Many thanks to Ellie Pilcher at Canelo for inviting me to take part in the tour.
Blurb: The case was closed. Until people started dying…
The unputdownable first DI Ridpath crime thriller from bestseller MJ Lee.
A killer in total control. A detective on the edge. A mystery that HAS to be solved.
DI Thomas Ridpath was on the up in the Manchester CID: a promising young detective whose first case involved capturing a notorious serial killer. But ten years later he’s recovering from a serious illness and on the brink of being forced out of the police. Then people start dying: tortured, murdered, in an uncanny echo of Ridpath’s first case.
As the investigation intensifies, old bodies go missing, records can’t be found and the murder count grows. Caught in a turf war between the police and the coroner’s office, digging up skeletons some would rather forget, Ridpath is caught in a race against time: a race to save his career, his marriage… And lives.
When a detective goes missing everything is on the line. Can Ridpath close the case and save his colleague?
Extract: The cemetery was on a spur overlooking the flood plain of the river Mersey. Morning mist hovered over the water, sneaking like a thief into every tiny nook and cranny. The sun was just trying to peer over the horizon, its weak rays lightening the dark skies. The bare whispers of a north-east wind hustled over the ground, creeping between the gravestones and rustling the branches of a row of lime trees.
Ridpath pulled his thick coat over the woollen fleece. The teal-blue scarf around his neck was nearly choking him, but he had promised Polly he’d wear it.
The doctors had warned him to be wary of catching cold or flu. If he did, he would be whisked off back into the isolation unit of Christie’s. Bloody doctors and their bloody fears. There was no way they were getting him inside the hospital again. Not in a million years.
He would have loved to smoke a fag right now. The tarry aroma of tobacco in the early morning air like the first cough of spring, but he had promised Polly he would cut down. Not eliminate, just cut down.
God, she was good at getting him to make promises. Almost as good as he was at breaking them.
The undertaker, Albert Ronson, had already erected blue plastic sheets on three sides of the grave, leaving the side hidden from the main road open.
The message on the headstone was simple:
Alice Seagram, 1990–2008.
Taken from us far too early.
In front of the headstone, a bunch of flowers bought from Tesco wilted in the early morning gloom.
‘I didn’t inter this client.’ The undertaker spoke out of the side of his mouth, not looking at Ridpath, whispering so as not to wake the dead.
The undertaker was almost a cliché of his profession: tall, dressed in black and with a sallow complexion which hadn’t seen sunlight since the Dark Ages. ‘Only one customer in the grave, so it should be a simple exhumation.’
The voice was monotone, without any sort of inflexion or stress. Funereal was the adjective to describe him, Ridpath decided.
‘The last time, I had three caskets on top and two cremation urns. Delicate job…delicate job.’ He blew on the ends of his sallow fingers in a futile attempt to warm them up in the cold morning air. Ridpath kept his hands in his pockets.
The gravediggers had already started to remove the grass that grew over the plot, putting the sods on top of a tarpaulin on one side. ‘Won’t use a mechanical digger on this customer.’ Albert looked over his shoulder. ‘Treat her with respect just in case the family comes down to watch.’
‘Do families normally come?’
‘Some do. Some don’t,’ said Albert enigmatically.
A car, its headlights cutting through the early morning mist, was parking at the side of the road.
‘It’s him, checking up as usual.’
A large, rotund man approached them wearing one of those dark-blue duvet jackets that made him look like a miniature version of the Michelin Man. ‘Morning, Albert,’ he nodded at the undertaker. ‘You must be the new coroner’s officer. I’m Health and Safety.’
He held out his hand. ‘Morning. Inspector Tom Ridpath, on temporary secondment to the coroner from Manchester Police.’
‘Lovely morning for it.’ He stared at the gravediggers and tut-tutted. ‘Albert, you know they should be wearing their masks before they start digging. See to it, will you?’
Albert glanced across at him mournfully, sneering with all the panache of a Professor Snape, before moving off to talk to the transgressing gravediggers.
‘Always tries to cut corners, does Albert.’ The man stomped his feet on the cold ground. ‘Been working long with the coroner?’
The man made a moue, his tiny eyes being swallowed up by the large red cheeks. He leant in closer. ‘Got a reputation, has Mrs Challinor.’ He leant in even closer until Ridpath could smell his breath. ‘Man-eater,’ he whispered. ‘But you didn’t hear it from me.’
The spades of the gravediggers cut through the damp earth with a rhythmic ease, breath puffing out of their mouths like aged steam trains as they carefully laid each clod of turf on the tarpaulin, under the watchful eyes of the undertaker and Mr Health and Safety.
‘And watch out for Carol Oates. Ambitious, that one is. Not happy just being area coroner, is she?’
‘I don’t know, is she?’
The man stopped smiling for a moment, wondering whether he was being made fun of. Ridpath kept his face still and unmoving.
‘She is. Wants to be head coroner, that one does, but Mrs Challinor is sitting in the hot seat.’
‘You seem to know a lot about what’s going on.’
‘Health and Safety, mate. I keeps my ears and eyes and nose close to the ground.’
An image of a jowly bloodhound with the man’s face leapt into Ridpath’s head as another car arrived at the side of the road.
‘Looks like the family has finally come.’
But only one man exited the car. Ridpath recognized the thin, tall, slightly bowed shape.
‘Morning, Charlie, what are you doing here?’
Charlie Whitworth stroked his moustache. ‘Wouldn’t miss your first day on the job, would I, Ridpath? And anyway, this is about that bastard Dalbey. Me and John Gorman were the ones who put him away.’
Mr Health and Safety leant into their conversation with his hand held out. ‘Rob Campbell, Health and Safety.’
Charlie Whitworth ignored the hand and continued speaking to Ridpath. ‘Alice Seagram was his fourth victim. You caught him with the fifth, remember?’
How could he forget? The day he had chased after James Dalbey, catching him in the lock-up next to the allotments. The police arriving. Looking up and seeing the girl – Freda Scott was her name. Naked and shackled to a blood-spattered wall at the rear of the building. Covering her with his jacket as she shivered in his arms. Her words’: ‘Save me…save me…save me,’ repeated again and again and again.
‘No…no…no…Albert, they need to be wearing their masks. They can’t take them off to breathe.’ Mr Health and Safety matched off to the graveside.
‘Dalbey’s trying to wriggle out of it. Prove his conviction was dodgy to get a pardon.’
‘He was a vicious bastard, Charlie.’
‘Aye, but we nicked him.’
The gravediggers had put their masks back on and returned to digging.
‘How did yesterday go?’
‘Mrs Challinor doesn’t have much time for Jim Howells.’
‘Who would? But let us know what’s going on there, Ridpath. Wouldn’t like it to get away from us.’
Ridpath turned to face his boss for the first time. ‘Second time you’ve asked me. I’m no nark, Charlie.’
‘Never said you were, but—’
The sound of the tip of a spade hitting wood.
‘Looks like we’ve hit the mother lode,’ Campbell shouted back towards them. ‘And she’s in good condition, too, from the sound of it.’
The gravediggers quickly removed the remaining earth covering the casket and jumped out of the grave. The undertaker took his own time putting on a white Tyvek suit, finally pulling on a pair of bright-pink plastic gloves given to him by Mr Health and Safety. He lowered himself into the grave, carefully placing his boots on either side of the coffin.
‘Apparently I have to observe this part,’ Ridpath said, moving to the graveside.
The undertaker was bent double, carefully scraping the last remnants of soil off the tarnished brass nameplate on the lid of the coffin. ‘I can read the name. It’s Alice Seagram.’
Ridpath remembered the words from the file he was supposed to say at this time. ‘Please remove the coffin, Mr Ronson.’ He then stepped back to allow the gravediggers to move the trestle, with its lifting ropes, over the grave.
The undertaker removed himself from the grave with an athleticism which surprised Ridpath.
‘Fancy breakfast? There’s a good greasy spoon next to the flower shop,’ said Charlie Whitworth, now standing beside him.
‘I’ll hang on here till the undertaker’s put the coffin in his van, and the thing is on its way to the pathologist.’
‘Following the rules to the letter, are we?’
Ridpath ignored him. The gravediggers, with the help of Ronson, were manoeuvring the ropes under the coffin so it could be lifted out of the grave. One of the gravediggers tugged on a rope attached to a pulley and the click of a ratchet echoed through the air.
The sun was fully up now, the mist being burned off by its rays. Off to the left, a blackbird was proclaiming his dominance of this graveyard from the top of an ancient yew tree.
Mr Health and Safety was encouraging the gravedigger. ‘Up a bit, slowly, that’s it, she’s coming up.’
The gravedigger was ignoring him, just going about his work with a singular concentration.
The ropes were taut and the dark, earth-stained wood of the coffin slowly rose into view. Ridpath expected a strong smell, perhaps of a rotting corpse, but there was nothing. Just the scent of the earth: a rich, black, fertile aroma.
They held the coffin above the grave as one of Ronson’s assistants brought out the gurney from the back of the van. He locked the two sets of wheels and trundled it across the grass, positioning it next to the grave.
Mr Health and Safety’s voice rang out again, loud enough to wake the dead. ‘Swing it round, gentlemen. Watch the straps.’
The gravediggers, with Ronson on one side, ignored him again, carefully moving the coffin from above the grave to the gurney. As they did so, Health and Safety decided they weren’t moving quickly enough and pushed the side of the coffin with his gloved hand. The edge caught on the side of the gurney, before wobbling for a moment and then settling down.
‘That was close,’ he said, ‘nearly fell off the straps.’
As he finished speaking, one of the straps snapped and the end of the coffin slipped down, crashing to the soft earth.
The two gravediggers and Ronson jumped backwards as the coffin landed on the ground with a loud thud. The lid popped open and slowly slid off to one side.
The undertaker recovered his composure quickly, leaning over to peer into the coffin. Then he stood upright and, in the loudest voice he had used in years, said, ‘Inspector, I think you should come and look at this.’
About the author: M J Lee has spent most of his adult life writing in one form or another. As a university researcher in history, he wrote pages of notes on reams of obscure topics. As a social worker with Vietnamese refugees, he wrote memoranda. And, as the creative director of an advertising agency, he has written print and press ads, TV commercials, short films and innumerable backs of cornflake packets and hotel websites.
He has spent 25 years of his life working outside the north of England, in London, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, Bangkok and Shanghai, winning advertising awards from Cannes, One Show, D&AD, New York and the United Nations.
While working in Shanghai, he loved walking through the old quarters of that amazing city, developing the idea behind a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Pyotr Danilov, set in the 1920s.
When he’s not writing, he splits his time between the UK and Asia, taking pleasure in playing with his daughter, practising downhill ironing, single-handedly solving the problem of the French wine lake, and wishing he were George Clooney.