Sheffield’s beautiful Botanical Gardens – an oasis of peace in a world filled with sorrow, confusion and pain. And then, one morning, a body is found in the Gardens. A young woman, dead from a stab wound, buried in a quiet corner. Police quickly determine that the body’s been there for months. It would have gone undiscovered for years – but someone just sneaked into the Gardens and dug it up.
Who is the victim? Who killed her and hid her body? Who dug her up? And who left a macabre marker on the body?
In his quest to find her murderer, DS Adam Tyler will find himself drawn into the secretive world of nighthawkers: treasure-hunters who operate under cover of darkness, seeking the lost and valuable . . . and willing to kill to keep what they find.
I live not too far from Sheffield and it’s a great city. As a family we’ve often popped on the train for a theatre matinee at The Crucible or The Lyceum. It’s my main gig venue too and in my younger days the City Hall and The Leadmill were regular haunts. I like the buzz of the city, the friendliness of the people and the chance to grab a bit of culture so close to home. So, when I was offered a proof of Russ Thomas’s new novel Nighthawking I jumped at the chance to read crime fiction based in the city. I hadn’t read his first Adam Tyler novel, so wasn’t sure what to expect, but I loved being shown this darker, criminal, underbelly of one of my favourite cities. There was a familiarity to the term ‘nighthawking’ too, because I’d recently read Elly Griffith’s latest Ruth Galloway novel The Nighthawks. The term refers to the practice of stealing archaeological artefacts, usually found by metal detector, under the cover of night. As someone who lives in a very rural area, I must admit I was a little creeped out by the concept of groups of men stumbling about in muddy fields in the dark. The archaeological aspect is at the centre of DS Tyler’s latest murder case. As the lead of the CCRU team, he selects cold cases for investigation. However, this case is reopened because the body of a young Chinese student is found buried within the Botanical Gardens. Curiously, she is found with two Roman coins over her eyes. Once she is identified as missing Sheffield University student Li Qiang – known as Chi- DS Taylor is tasked with finding her killer by reviewing the original missing person’s case closed months ago, just two weeks after her disappearance. At his side is DC Mina Rabbanni, a one woman powerhouse of intuition and initiative, but not above taking risks when it might lead to the truth.
In the background are a fascinating mix of possible suspects, from Chi’s own family, to other workers at the gardens, to university contacts and whoever had access to the very rare Roman coins found with her body. Interestingly, one man is both a volunteer at the gardens, but is also part of an amateur metal detecting group. The group’s leader encourages the detectorists in good practice, but a small group have been out detecting late at night and have stumbled on the find of a lifetime. A cache of gold Roman coins, potentially worth six figures if they could sell them on. However, usual practice is for the find to be declared, then the landowner would be due a share of any profits. The men decide to sell, but where would they find someone with the right contacts, knowledge of the black market, and who they could trust? The men split the coins for safekeeping, until they can find a way forward, so how did two of them end up buried with Chi. The team’s digging into Chi’s life uncovers some interesting potential leads. Her sister Juju lives in the city, with a new baby and her fiancé Rob. Ju is grief stricken by her death when they visit to inform her, but her fiancé had been in a relationship with Chi too, suggesting some animosity or tension between the sisters. I was keeping my eye on the fiancé too, because he seemed to pop up far too often and wasn’t always giving the full story. Chi had a complicated love life, including several sexual relationships, but no permanent partner. Also far from the model student, she seemed to be struggling at the university in her study of orchids, but yet religiously volunteered with the Botanic Gardens, suggesting a keen interest. Add to this a father who’s a Chinese diplomat and the pressures start to build.
I enjoyed that Tyler also had a lot going on in his personal life and seemed distracted, much to the concern of DI Jordan, his superior. CCRU is under scrutiny by Chief Constable Stevens – known as the Eel behind his back – and is in the firing line as cutbacks threaten the force. Tyler is still quietly investigating the apparent suicide of his father, and wonders if a local gangster might hold the key. There’s also his own brother’s disappearance weighing heavy on his mind. He’s stuffing up his relationship with Paul, who feels he simply can’t get his attention, even to tell him their relationship is over. Added to this Tyler takes a homeless teenager under his wing and goes out of his way to help him get a roof over his head. Tyler keeps his emotions and worries to himself and isn’t really one to share, but with everything bottled up is his eye on the case as much as it should be? Mina is the stand out character for me, so full of life and enthusiasm for her job, she leaps off the page. With her superior officer often AWOL, she gets her teeth into this case and won’t let go. Her intuition is telling her there’s something wrong with the original missing person’s case. There are barely any notes in the file, normal checks weren’t carried out and many people were not even interviewed. The original investigating officer is on long-term sick leave, but Mina has to ask the question; why was it assumed Chi had run off with a secret boyfriend and with what evidence? It looks like they simply didn’t care, but Mina suspects there may be more to this than a single officer not doing her job.
Somehow, Thomas weaves all these disparate threads and characters together beautifully. Drip feeding the reader information a little at a time and dropping the odd red herring along the way. The pace was perfect, even the minor characters felt interesting and fully rounded ( the new pathologist, Emma, is a real highlight) I would never have guessed what was going on or who was behind the murder, so it was a surprise. I thought Thomas was so clever in keeping those longer narratives bubbling along underneath the surface of the primary case. Tyler’s unexpected meeting with an old gangster – the Ronnie Kray of 1960’s Sheffield – moves the story of his father’s death along a little, ready for the next book. The hints at Mina’s background and it’s possible clash with her work as a police officer is touched upon, but I would be interested to see how that develops. I would also love to see more of her double act with Emma the pathologist. Then there’s the politics of policing, the potential fireworks over Mina’s findings and CCRU’s future going forward. Thomas took me to familiar places but placed them in a completely different light. He showed me the difference between a city as I would see it and as a police officer sees it, and that gap in perception is often what makes personal relationships so difficult. I’m really looking forward to getting to know Tyler better and to enjoying more of such well-paced crime fiction; rich in character, setting and storyline.
Published by Simon and Schuster 29th April 2021.
Meet The Author
RUSS THOMAS was born in Essex, raised in Berkshire and now lives in Sheffield. After a few ‘proper’ jobs (among them: pot-washer, optician’s receptionist, supermarket warehouse operative, call-centre telephonist, and storage salesman) he discovered the joys of bookselling, where he could talk to people about books all day. Firewatching is his debut novel.