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Onyx reviews: Still Waters by Nigel McCrery

Still Waters begins with an interesting premise. Deputy Chief Inspector Mark Lapslie suffers from synaesthesia, a condition in which sounds cause him to experience tastes. The untreatable neurological disorder is worse than it sounds. Many of the unexpected tastes are unpleasant—on one occasion, a Beatles song on the radio filled his mouth with the flavor of rancid pork and almost made him drive off the road.

His synaesthesia has worsened dramatically recently. He can no longer bear to be around a noisy, active police station, nor around his kids. When the book opens, he is on long-term, indefinite paid leave (the police call it "gardening leave"), and his wife and kids have moved out. He is understandable surprised when he receives a call late at night to turn out to the location of a fatality accident. An as-yet undisclosed detail about the crime scene triggered a flag that led to the summons.

The accident by itself is unremarkable. A guy driving a high-performance car too fast missed a turn and ran off the road. However, the crime scene investigators turned up a second body—that of an old woman who had been buried in the woods nearly a year earlier, fortuitously disinterred by the car wreck.

Lapslie's superiors have reached the end of their patience with him. They aren't willing to fund his vacation forever, so it's time for him to either get back to work or find some other way to earn a living. He is provided with a quiet room at the police headquarters and explains his delicate circumstances to his new assistant, DS Emma Bradbury, whose voice tastes like lemon, with a hint of grapefruit.

In parallel with the ongoing investigation into the elderly woman's murder (someone cut off the fingers on one of her hands, which calls to mind a childhood scene depicted in a brief but chilling prolog), McCrery shows readers about the ongoing exploits of another woman of a certain age, a serial murderer who preys on lonely elderly women. She isolates them from any social ties, gains access to their accounts, kills them with homegrown poisons and takes over their identities and property. Not to put too fine a point on it, she even goes to see a performance of Arsenic and Old Lace while stalking a new victim.

For most of the book, these two storylines truly are in parallel. Lapslie and his colleagues scrounge up precious few clues and someone high up in law enforcement wants him to downplay the investigation. Whenever it seems like he might be getting close, pressure is applied to have him removed from the case altogether. When he and Bradbury make a discovery that indicate a serial killer is at work, the cavalier reaction of his supervisors stretches credibility.

This is only one sign of how the book collapses in the final act. Lapslie has no idea why he was flagged for this investigation, but when he is presented with the name of the murderer, he suddenly remembers a flood of precise details about her case, all of which bear a strong similarity to the murders he's been investigating. How an astute veteran like Lapslie could fail to make the connection before, and how everything could fall so completely into place in an instant defies belief. The machinations of the high-level agencies, and their reasons for behaving as they do, are poorly motivated as well.

For most of the novel, McCrery resists the temptation to use Lapslie's synaesthesia as a tool for crime solving. Ultimately, though, he falls victim to his own cleverness. Lapslie claims to be able to detect lies through his sense of taste, for no good reason and to no perceptible purpose other than to set up an awkward confrontation between him and the killer, who is posing as another woman when they meet. The author would have done better to leave the quirk as a weakness and a liability rather than trying to convert it into an asset.

It also doesn't speak well of the book that the killer is more fascinating than the protagonist. The chapters where she selects victims, splits them from the herd, isolates them and makes herself invaluable before executing them are truly chilling, which makes the poor execution of the book's final chapters even more of a shame.

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