Following Barry Maitland’s first mystery, The Marx Sisters, Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla and Detective Chief Inspector David Brock of Scotland Yard return in The Malcontenta, which won Australia’s Edgar Award, the Ned Kelly Award for Crime Fiction, when it was first published.
Det. Sergeant Kathy Kolla is on temporary assignment away from London with the Family and Juvenile Crime division. Desperate to escape the second-rate duties assigned to her, she jumps at the chance to investigate the unnatural death of a young physiotherapist at an exclusive local naturopathic spa.
Very soon it becomes clear that the apparent suicide is fraught with complications. Is a cover-up taking place to protect the reputations of wealthy clients? Taken off the case before she has the chance to discover the truth, Kathy turns to DCI David Brock for help. But when Brock poses as a client, they both learn that spas are not always good for your health.
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Kathy could feel the tension in Gordon Dowling at her side, and it irritated her unreasonably. They were only going to London, for God's sake. He had developed this frown as the landscape had changed from the rolling countryside of the green belt into the constipated clutter of the outer suburbs, and the frown had deepened and his nose developed a nervous twitch as they had worked their way further into south London. 'Do you get up to London much?' she had asked at one point, and he had answered in a tight monosyllable, 'Once.' It was unbelievable. He had spent his whole life in the southern counties, and he had only been to London once.
What really irritated her was that she was getting edgy too. She had probably made a mistake picking the B road across country to Westerham. She had done so because of the gleeful warnings on Radio I of jams on the M20, A21 and M25. Snow had begun falling during the night, just when everyone was beginning to feel that spring couldn't be that far away. At first it had seemed charming, turning the brown countryside pristine white and the villages into winter postcards. But then the fall had become heavier, the sky blacker. By the time they reached the outskirts of London a dark gloom had settled, and the Saturday morning traffic, headlights blazing, had become paralysed in a morass of slush and minor accidents. When they reached the south circular and found it locked solid, they had come less than forty miles in one and a half hours and felt as if they had entered an alien country.
In an attempt to get free of the jams, Kathy had then turned north off the main road in what had seemed to be the right general direction. It had been a terrible mistake. They had quickly become entangled in a confusing system of residential culs-de-sac and streets cut in two by arrangements of tree-planting and bollards designed to block through-traffic, in what the planners like to call 'traffic-calming'. Brought to a stop for the fifth time, Kathy thumped the wheel in exasperation and admitted defeat.
'We'd better check the A-Z,' she sighed, then noticed that Dowling was staring over her shoulder towards the rear of the car. Half a dozen figures, the hoods of their parkas zipped against the snow, were closing in on them. Kathy heard the tightness in the young man's voice as he muttered, 'Do we look like coppers?'
She lowered the window and called to them. 'Any idea how we can get to Herne Hill station? Or North Dulwich?'
One of the figures approached and tugged open the fur around the opening of the hood to expose a few inches of black face. 'Yeah, you passed the turning into Croxted Road back there, didn't yer.' He pointed back the way they had come.
'Thanks.' She pushed the gear-stick into reverse and carefully did a three-point turn through the group, which parted and moved on.
Somewhere north of Dulwich they stopped by a small park. They had described a large circle and were lost again. Although it was now midmorning, the pale-grey light penetrating the dark clouds above was no brighter than at dawn, and the snow had settled into a steady fall which was building up on the deserted footpaths and gradually overwhelming the slush on the roads. A sign was visible in the gloom saying 'Wildwood Common', but no such place existed in the A-Z. Kathy was thoroughly regretting the whole thing. What had seemed the previous week to be a brainwave now appeared pointless. Worse, it seemed dangerous. Their isolation suddenly brought home to her what she was risking, for both of them, if their superiors came to hear of it. The Deputy Chief Constable would go spare. And Tanner would love it, of course. Her stomach turned at the thought.
'That says Matcham High Street over there,' Dowling said suddenly, his nose still twitching fretfully. Kathy peered through the misted windscreen and finally spotted the sign pointing towards a gap in a row of terraces.
She nodded. 'One last try, then. At least we might find a coffee shop before we give up.'
After the stillness of the deserted common, the high street was chaotic with traffic and pedestrians fighting through the snow. They missed the turning into Warren Lane the first time and had to turn on the far side of the railway bridge and crawl slowly back. They saw why they had missed it when they almost did the same thing again, for the entrance to the lane was no more than an archway in a block of shops, and when they turned into it they found themselves in an empty yard dominated by a large and gloomy brick warehouse.
Kathy stopped the car in the middle of the space and stepped out, shivering suddenly as the cold hit her. The noise of the high street was muffled by the snow and by the wall of old brick buildings around her, all of which seemed to be deserted. A faded sign above the door to the tall warehouse baldly gave the information 'SMITH'S'. Nearby, the skeleton of a large horse-chestnut tree in the far corner of the courtyard showed black through the snow.
'This can't be right,' she sighed. 'Trust Brock to be difficult.'
She took a deep breath and walked towards the chestnut tree, feeling the irregular surface of cobble-stones under the snow beneath her feet. Beyond the tree she made out a narrow lane running out of the far corner of the courtyard. One side of it was lined by a hedge, and the other by an irregular terrace of brick cottages, two and three storeys in height. She walked to the first house, her feet crunching through the undisturbed snow which had drifted into mounds around the base of the buildings. Searching for a number, she cursed silently as her foot struck some obstruction under the snow, and when she kicked it away she saw an old iron boot-scraper set into the cobbles. She lifted her head and saw directly in front of her on the wall a brass plate, filmed with snow dust, upon which was inscribed the single word 'Brock'.
Dowling was glumly listening to a medley of Italian pop tunes which a sadistic Capital Radio disc jockey had put on to remind drivers stuck on the motorways of the hot Mediterranean summers they were not currently enjoying. He jumped as the car door was yanked open and Kathy put her head in. 'Come on,' she said. 'I've found him.'
Brock's large frame filled the small front door when he opened it, making him look even bigger than he was. He beamed as he ushered them in, and Kathy was immediately reassured, recognizing that his pleasure at seeing them was genuine.
They squeezed into the small hallway while Brock hung their coats on pegs on the wall, then followed him up the stairs, which rose steeply ahead. At the top they came to a landing, the walls of which were lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, so that the doors leading off appeared to be cut into the packed books. A short corridor, also book-lined, twisted away to the left, and by the time they reached another small hallway with the foot of another staircase visible ahead, Kathy and Dowling were becoming disoriented. Brock opened a panelled door and led them into a bright room, warm, with some music playing quietly as a background to whatever they had interrupted. Kathy was surprised to hear the voice of kd lang. She glanced quickly at a long bench down one wall, cluttered with papers, books and two PCs, one with its screen alive with a rotating pattern as it waited for further instructions, the other a laptop.
'Come in, come in,' Brock growled, waving them in. 'You'll be freezing. A terrible day to be out and about. I heard the reports of the pileups on the motorway and thought you might not make it.'
'We almost didn't,' she laughed, already feeling at home as he led them over towards the gas fire. 'This is DC Gordon Dowling, Brock, who I mentioned on the phone, the one I've been working with. Gordon, this is Detective Chief Inspector Brock.'
The two men shook hands, Dowling deferential and awkward, Brock expansive and amiable. He turned to Kathy again. 'And you, Kathy, how are you? You're looking well.'
That was only partly true, he felt. She had lost some weight, her face was thinner, and while this probably made her more attractive in a slightly haunted sort of way, she looked less healthy than when he had first met her a year ago. Less happy too, perhaps, although he hadn't really been in a position to judge that.
'The side?' He glanced at her right side where the worst wound had been.
'No, it's fine,' she smiled. 'No more twinges. And you, Brock, you're looking really well.'
Though she too had doubts. He had put on weight, just a little but enough to notice. He looked as if he hadn't been out of doors much lately, and she spotted the way his eyes narrowed with discomfort as he straightened his back, as if he'd been spending too long sitting in front of a keyboard. His bushy grey hair could definitely do with a cut, and his beard a trim.
'You'd probably like coffee?'
'Oh yes,' Kathy said. 'That would be wonderful.'
'And something to eat, I expect, Gordon?'
Dowling shrugged non-committally, not wanting to seem too forward with the great man, although now food had been mentioned he realized he was starving. Brock nodded and left the room.
Kathy was drawn past the leather armchairs clustered round the gas fire to the far wall, almost entirely filled by a range of windows through which pale, snow-filtered light illuminated the room. She discovered when she reached it that the last three feet of the room were in fact an enclosed balcony overhanging the lane, like an aerial conservatory. From here she could see why the lane was only built up on one side, for the hedge opposite had hidden a sharp drop into a railway cutting. The roofs of houses showed dimly on the far side.
There was a low window-seat around the balcony, and she sat there for a moment, suspended in a swirling cloud of snowflakes, as if in the gondola of a hot-air balloon.
She looked back into the room, snug, simply furnished, purposeful. It seemed both an office and a living room. The morning papers were scattered beside one of the armchairs, and there were several empty coffee mugs on the bench. There was only one picture on the plain white walls. She got up and went over to have a look. It was composed of odd scraps of paper stuck together. She made out an old bus ticket and a fragment of a German newspaper with Gothic script. At the bottom was a pencilled signature, 'K. Schwitters'.
Behind her she heard Dowling swear quietly. She turned and saw that he had touched the mouse on the PC with the active screen pattern, which had immediately come to life, scrolling down lines of data.
'Kathy!' he hissed in panic. 'How do you turn it off again? He'll be back in a minute.'
'You'll just have to wait. It'll turn itself off in a minute, I expect.'
She went over to have a look. The screen held a data sheet with details of a man - physical, biographical and case references. She hadn't heard of him, although apparently ten years ago he had cut a Birmingham family to pieces with a Japanese ceremonial sword.
'Bloody hell, Kathy, I can hear him coming! What's he going to think?'
'That you're a detective, Gordon,' she smiled. 'Come and sit down by the fire and hope he doesn't notice.'
Brock bustled in with a large tray which he set down on a low table in the middle of the ring of armchairs. As well as the coffee things, he had brought a plate piled with slices of bread and crumpets, a dish of butter and a large jar of honey. He reached for a long steel fork which was hanging from a hook beside the fireplace, and offered it to Dowling.
'Gordon, would you take charge of this for us?'
Dowling looked lost.
'The toasting, Gordon. Haven't you done it before? I suppose you only have central heating with radiators. The main point of an old-fashioned gas fire is to toast things while you sit around it and talk. Didn't you know that?'
Dowling accepted the ribbing with a shy smile and took the handle of the fork while Brock speared a crumpet on to the long prongs.
'I haven't had a crumpet since I was little,' Kathy said, and caught Dowling's eye, nodding her head surreptitiously towards the bench on the other side of the room. He glanced over, and she saw the relief dawn on his face as he spotted the pattern slowly rotating again on the computer screen.
Brock was crouching, pouring the coffee into mugs and passing them round.
'You like kd lang, do you, Brock?' Kathy asked.
'Of course,' he smiled, easing himself back into his chair. 'And how is the country suiting you, Kathy? Are they teaching you anything?'
Kathy was about to come out with the opening she had prepared, then stopped. 'Good question. I suppose that's it, really. No, they're not.'
'Because of your murder?'
She nodded. She had said very little to him on the phone, just enough to get him interested, although he had told her often enough to keep in touch with him and let him know how her spell with the County force was going. It suddenly occurred to her that he may have made some inquiries of his own after she'd rung. She hoped not - not before she'd put him in the picture.
'But the whole point about your being down there is to broaden your experience - they know that. We've done these rotations with them before. There's no point to it if you're not learning anything. We might as well pull you back to the Met.'
'Yes,' Kathy said doubtfully. For her, the whole point was to get back, not just to another division in the Met, but to SOI, the Serious Crimes section at the Yard.
'Have you spoken to whoever's supposed to be supervising your assignments?'
'He's a DI, Ric Tanner. Yes, I have, and got nowhere. He made it plain that I'm being punished - not in so many words, but there is a ... lack of confidence in my ability to perform at a higher level.'
Brock snorted. 'Bullshit! Who's his instructing officer?'
Kathy sighed. 'That's the problem. The programme comes under the Deputy Chief Constable's office. His name is Long.'
'Bernard Long. Both he and Tanner came from the Met originally. They knew each other there. And Long became involved in the murder case personally involved.'
Brock frowned. 'You'd better tell me about this murder, Kathy.'
'Brock, before I do, I want to be clear about this. I'm not making a complaint. I just want the advice of someone whose judgement I trust. But I don't want to put you in the position where you feel you have to follow up. In fact you may very well want to be able to say later that you knew nothing about it.'
'Ah.' Brock gave a little smile into his coffee mug. 'But you've brought Detective Constable Dowling with you, Kathy.'
Kathy coloured. 'I brought Gordon because he's become tainted along with me. I was in charge of the investigation, and he was my main assistant. When things turned sour he stood by me. Now he's getting the same treatment I am. Only he won't be transferring out in another month or so, as I will. He's stuck. That's why I brought him, that and the fact he may be able to add to what I say. But if you'd rather he left, of course he'll go.'
Brock nodded non-committally, hearing the tightness in her voice. 'All right, but I'm not joining a conspiracy, Kathy. If I feel I have to act in a certain way after what I hear, I'll just have to do it. That could be awkward for Gordon, perhaps. What do you say, Gordon?'
The young man straightened from the fire. Two toasted crumpets lay on the plate in front of him, a third almost finished. He was twenty-five, just six years younger than Kathy, but, as he cleared his throat to speak, she realized how protective she had come to feel towards him. His slow and rather tentative physical movements seemed to have the effect of making hers quicker and more adept, and the same happened with his speech. As he hesitated, she had an almost overpowering desire to break in and answer for him. Yet when he did eventually speak, he did so with such a depth of concern in his voice that she felt ashamed of her impulse to patronize him.
'I believe ...' he began, and for a moment it sounded as if he was about to recite the catechism, 'I believe that Kathy was right, all the way down the line, in the way she handled the Petrou investigation. They tried to make her look incompetent, but she wasn't. The way they treated her, they wouldn't have done the same if she'd been a man. At least' - he ducked his head 'that's my opinion.'
He stared gloomily at the toasting fork in his hand while they waited to see if there was more. Finally Brock said, 'Yes, I see. But you look, well, uneasy, Gordon ... about being here. Are you sure you want to be involved in this?'
Dowling raised his eyes to face Brock. 'Oh, yes, sir. If Kathy thinks you should know about it, then I agree and I want to be part of it. I was in her team, I trust her judgement.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Malcontenta"
Copyright © 2013 Barry Maitland.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the second of his murder mysteries...I prefer to start from beginning. The Marx Sisters was great. The author has a way of holding out but giving a few clues to make this an un-predicatble read.
Fair to goof