Dead Ground by M.W. Craven #BookReview

Detective Sergeant Washington Poe is in court, fighting eviction from his beloved and isolated croft, when he is summoned to a backstreet brothel in Carlisle where a man has been beaten to death with a baseball bat. Poe is confused – he hunts serial killers and this appears to be a straightforward murder-by-pimp – but his attendance was requested personally, by the kind of people who prefer to remain in the shadows.
As Poe and the socially awkward programmer Tilly Bradshaw delve deeper into the case, they are faced with seemingly unanswerable questions: despite being heavily vetted for a high-profile job, why does nothing in the victim’s background check out? Why was a small ornament left at the murder scene – and why did someone on the investigation team steal it? And what is the connection to a flawlessly executed bank heist three years earlier, a heist where nothing was taken . . .

 I'm honoured to be sharing my review of Dead Ground today, many thanks to  M.W. Craven and to Beth from Little, Brown for my digital copy of the novel which I received through NetGalley.

Dead Ground opens in the same way as the previous books in the series, with a clever, memorable prologue. However, this is a less gruesome opening than in the past and features what at first appears to be a classic heist. A group of men in James Bond masks have broken into a high security, purpose-built vault  containing safety deposit boxes. It's a professional job that seems to be going to plan until a man is killed - and a small ceramic ornament is left at the scene.
After the traumatic events in The Curator, Washington Poe has a more personal concern to deal with; the pressing matter of the court case which will determine the fate of his beloved home on Shap Fell. Before the verdict can be called, Poe and Tilly Bradshaw are whisked away to a location that's so secure, Poe quickly works out where they have been taken. After making it clear that he won't be intimidated, he is told of a murder of a man whose body has been discovered at a brothel. It's apparently a more straightforward case than Poe is usually called upon to investigate - this isn't a serial killer at work, it's the death of a man in seedy circumstances. However, a familiar face from The Curator, FBI Special Agent Melody Lee has specifically asked for him to lead the investigation. 
Christopher Bierman's violent, sordid demise has attracted the attention of the FBI and the British security services because his company had been employed to provide executive helicopter travel to an impending trade summit which is due to be held nearby. What follows is a perplexing, complex case which is somehow connected to the earlier murder. It is further complicated by discrepancies, misdirection and the shadowy world of international relations. . 
In the absence of DI Flynn, who is still recuperating following her ordeal in The Curator, Poe and Bradshaw are joined by two very different women; the aforementioned Melody Lee and MI5 agent, Hannah Finch, both of whom need reassurance that it's safe for the summit to proceed. Melody Lee works well with Poe, she also has her own no-nonsense turn of phrase and a singular determination to get to the truth which, like him makes her an indispensable thorn in the side of authority. Meanwhile, Hannah Finch is arrogant, ambitious and perhaps answers too much to her superiors to be fully relied upon. This brings us to a character whose introduction I particularly enjoyed despite never quite knowing how far he can be trusted. Alastor Locke appears to be an old-school spook and his verbal sparring with Poe reveals him to be just as artful - their meeting of minds adds a fascinating dimension to the book which I would welcome being revisited in the future.
Something that isn't new but is the enduring highlight of this series, is the relationship between Poe and Tilly Bradshaw, which is as warm and witty as ever. M.W. Craven's wonderful gift for interspersing the drama with humour is an integral part of these books. Poe's characteristic sarcasm and caustic one-liners underline his candid temperament whereas the guileless Tilly's questions often result in more unintentional comedy - although there are moments here of her developing a knowing wit too, now she increasingly has the measure of Poe.
This is a multilayered case involving the unsettling use of technology for good and ill - I'm sure I won't be the only person to be more careful around charging cables... This isn't the work of a cold-hearted genius though, there are raw emotions at play here too. It's a more political investigation for Poe, with the murders linked to events that occurred years ago in Afghanistan, the truth of which has never fully been revealed. As a former military man himself, he naturally feels an affinity with those affected and his concern for the bereaved involved ensures he is determined to see justice served. The global implications of the case are incendiary, however, it's less the relations between nations which concerns him than the emotional ripples of choices that engulf families.
Tilly's incomparable brain and Poe's own acute eye for detail are needed more than ever in this superbly crafted mystery which keeps the surprises coming right up to the stunning conclusion. There are numerous reasons why this series is so beloved of its many fans but ultimately it's because each book is an outstanding demonstration of compelling plot, excellent pacing, astute characterisation and perhaps most importantly, is written with enormous heart. Absolutely unmissable; like its predecessors, Dead Ground is compulsive crime fiction of the very highest quality.

Dead Ground is published by Constable, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group. Purchasing links can be found here but please support independent bookstores whenever possible.

About the Author
M. W. Craven was born in Carlisle but grew up in Newcastle, returning after 31 years to take up a probation officer position in Whitehaven, eventually working his way up to chief officer grade. Sixteen years later he took the plunge, accepted redundancy and became a full-time author. He now has entirely different motivations for trying to get inside the minds of criminals. His first novel featuring Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw, The Puppet Show, was published by Constable to huge acclaim, and it has since won the CWA Gold Dagger Award and been shortlisted for the Amazon Publishing Readers’ Awards: Best Crime Novel, the Goldsboro Glass Bell Award and the Dead Good Reader Awards. M. W. Craven lives in Carlisle with his wife, Joanne. When he isn’t out with his springer spaniel, or talking nonsense in the pub, he can usually be found at punk gigs and writing festivals up and down the country.