The first in a series for Robotham, The Suspect was published back in 2004 and takes as its focal point clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. Joe is working in London and at the novel’s opening we find him counselling a group of prostitutes set up by his old friend Elisa, also a prostitute. Here he just happens to meet Detective Inspector Victor Ruiz who, after some intelligent ripostes from Joe, invites him to take a look into his current murder investigation of a young lady found buried near a canal with multiple, putatively self-inflicted, stab wounds. In another highly coincidental twist of fate, Joe finds that he not only recognises the deceased, but he actually has quite a tangled and difficult past involving the lady. Oh bugger! After holding back this information from Ruiz, the Detective Inspector becomes increasingly infuriated (he’s quite an angry fella) and suspicious of our protagonist and when more and more details emerge linking Joe to the murdered woman, Inspector Ruiz is more than happy to pin him down as the suspected murderer.
Meanwhile, Joe is also entangled with a rather enigmatic and curious patient known as Bobby. Often referred to in terms of his large build, when Bobby turns up at his meetings, which is infrequently at best, he begins unveiling hints and details that strangely relate to the murder case. Is it just a coincidence that the girl received 21 stab wounds and Bobby carries around a piece of paper with the number 21 scrawled all over it? Hmm. As Joe’s suspicions increase and he appears to be edging closer to the truth, the evidence linking himself to the murder multiplies like frog spawn and before he knows it he is being wanted for murder. The novel zips between London, Liverpool and North Wales as Joe frantically tries to unearth Bobby’s Liverpudlian childhood and the motives behind his fatal actions before the train of police on his tail catch up with him and pin him down for murder.
This is the first piece of crime fiction I’ve read in a while and I really enjoyed it. The main problem I have with a lot of crime fiction is that the mass of coincidences that build up as the plot proceeds can subtract from the novel’s realism. For example, the way that a psychologist is invited quite willy-nilly to participate in a murder investigation made me a bit dubious to say the least. As too did the fact that the protagonist has a clear alibi for the evening of the murder but he (initially understandably) doesn’t want to use her. However, I thought Robotham tells a cracking story and there’s no underestimating the sheer intricacy of the plot. I admired this complexity which must have taken a lot of intelligent planning and thought. The writing itself was also very good, fluid with hints of humour which I would have liked to see a bit more of. Having grew up in North Wales and studied in Liverpool, I was able to visualise the novel’s landscape and it seemed clear to me that Robotham had made the effort to research the places of his novel and their landscapes and it paid off for me. This research, I think, compensates for the abounding coincidences of the plot to give the novel a strong(er) foothold in reality.
The characterisation, I thought, was also very well done. Joe O’Loughlin is a fully fleshed character and the reader finds out enough about him to understand what makes him tick. I saw somebody complaining on Goodreads that he was a cheating, misogynistic pig (or something to that tune) and so the novel only deserves one star. Like any of us, he clearly has his personal problems in this novel and is by no means perfect, but I thought that was another level which Robotham dealt with well. It is narrated in the first person present tense and there are charming moments that reveal his personality to us, for example when he says that “Bobby said he worked as a courier. Maybe he delivers industrial solvents. I will ask him at our next session, if Major Tom is in touch with ground control by then”. A nice little allusion to a Bowie track reveals a façade of the character’s personality in a slight little nuance. I thought that was clever writing. There were also slips, however. I can’t imagine a psychologist who has spent all his life in the UK referring to the off-licence as the “liquor store”, for example. There were a couple of these here and there, but most readers will breeze past these and of course they do not disrupt the plot at all.
Overall I thought The Suspect was an excellent piece of crime fiction. It kept me engaged throughout, it is well paced with interesting and rounded characters. It did at times remind me of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling which I read last year, so if you like that one, or if you like British Crime in general, go and check this one out and come back here and let me know what you thought. Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on The Suspect!