Saturday, May 6, 2017


BROKEN DOLLS by James Carol (Faber & Faber, 2014)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Jefferson Winter is no ordinary investigator. The son of one of America's most renowned serial killers, Winter has spent his life trying to distance himself from his father's legacy. Once a rising star at the FBI, he is now a freelance consultant, jetting around the globe helping local law enforcement agencies with difficult cases. He's not got Da Vinci's IQ, but he's pretty close.

When he accepts a particularly disturbing case in London, Winter arrives to find a city in the grip of a cold snap, with a psychopath on the loose who likes abducting and lobotomising young women. Winter must use all his preternatural brain power in order to work out who is behind the attacks, before another young woman becomes a victim. As Winter knows all too well, however, not everyone who's broken can be fixed.

If you're a fan of crime fiction that tiptoes along the darkest, creepiest border of the genre, then consider giving James Carol's Jefferson Winter books a go. There's lots of serial killer stuff out there (too much, really) and plenty of 'genius profiler' tales too, but when it's done well it can still be terrific. And Carol does it very well. There's enough of a freshness to his writing, a bit of a zing, to elevate BROKEN DOLLS above the sea of soundalike serial killer tales out there. I enjoyed it.

Jefferson Winter is a genius-level investigator who used to work for the FBI but was too rogue to fit in with that organisation long-term. He has a particular insight into the worst criminals, being the offspring of one of America's very worst, an executed serial killer who said with his final words that his son was just like him. Could this be true, a madness passed down the bloodlines?

Winter spends his work life, which is his whole life, fighting monsters and gazing into the abyss.

Will the abyss eventually gaze back? Will Winter become a monster too?

It's an interesting thread. I've read excellent books from two other very fine authors, where the hero is related to a serial killer and trying to do good in spite of the family history (the award-winning BLOOD MEN by Paul Cleave, and Jack Kerley's terrific Carson Ryder series set in Alabama), but Carol's take never feels derivative. He's a good writer who draws the reader in, and creates a strong narrative drive and good tone and atmosphere as he straps us down for a dark and creepy ride.

In this first in the series, Winter is, technically, not actually faced with a serial killer. Instead, he's travelled to London and is hunting a hunter who kidnaps and tortures young women for months, before leaving them near-dead, as 'broken dolls'. An ultimate ignominy. And one that Winter's partner on the case, Detective Sophie Templeton, risks facing herself once she too becomes a target.

This is the kind of book that if you broke it down into it's component parts, it could seem akin to plenty of others out there: aloof genius investigator, a troubled past which casts a present shadow, a particularly nasty criminal who tortures women, some twists in the plotline. But BROKEN DOLLS is much greater than the sum of its parts, and that's down to Carol's writing skill, the things that bring together all those familiar building blocks to create an absorbing, creepy tale that immediately had me putting the rest of the Jefferson Winter books onto my 'to read' list.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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