Before you get too comfortable or too far into this book review, grab something to write with and write on. Now write down, Douglas Watkinson – Nathan Hawk Mysteries. You are not going to want to forget those names.
Douglas Watkinson has spent most of his adult life as a TV screenwriter for British television. His fellow countrymen will recognize his work on shows such as Heartbeat, Midsomer Murders, Kavanagh QC, Emmerdale Farm and Poirot among others. A few years ago he turned his hand to prose. He pinned his first book, Haggard Hawk under the pseudonym Marcus Barr. “Don’t ask me why” he says. “I never got used to Marcus so I dumped him and went back to Douglas Watkinson for the second book, Easy Prey (Nathan Hawk Mystery).”
“I clicked my fingers and missed my catch. The glass fell to the floor and smashed. The place went quiet. Such is the power of oncoming violence that his customers knew something was brewing and it wasn’t just the coffee. Roberto turned to appeal to the onlookers. None of them really wanted to help. None of them really wanted to be there anymore.”
Watkinson’s Nathan Hawk is a recently and forcibly retired cop. He’s got anger management issues and a host of methods for dealing with them, but they won’t stay down on the farm no matter how hard he tries.The ex-head of a Murder Squad with impeccable credentials for hunting down and ferreting out killers – he solved 35 murders and brought the killers to justice during his career – he survived a bad marriage, and his wife is now deceased. He’s got a heart to rent and has met a doctor in the village where he has retired who may or may not be willing to take out a long term lease. He has a father’s worries about his children who have flown the nest. Theoretically. They are all mostly grown and scattered to the four winds, making their own way – in many worrisome ways – in the world. Mostly, he has too much time on his hand, time to worry about things that he’d rather ignore or let find their own way. He has thrown himself into rehabilitating his small country cottage and into gardening, into mastering his anger control issues in many conventional and eccentric ways, and to sending money to his children who find the damnedest ways to spend it. But, no matter how retired he is, no matter how often the local authorities tell him to stay away, murders keep popping up and he can’t help himself from becoming involved.
Teresa Stillman is the remarkably well adjusted daughter of a local barrister. She has found success as a landscape architect restoring old English gardens and in designing new and beautiful Japanese gardens. And she is having romantic thoughts for Tom Gibson, a helper she had first hired and then started falling for. Tom is a hard worker and seems to have found himself, in the quiet work of gardening. Teresa has never supplied her father with the worrisome things that all children put their parents through. Until now.
Teresa goes missing, along with a £7000 deposit, after meeting a mysterious potential client. The police, who aren’t keen on pursuing the matter anyhow, run into nothing but dead ends. The local constable postulates that she has finally spread her wings and run off somewhere to sow her wild oats. They can find no evidence of a crime, and put the matter to rest. But her father, John Stillman, can’t let her go that easily. After many years of devoting his time to rising to the top of his profession as a prosecuting barrister and not paying attention to his only daughter, she sill seemed so devoted to him and such a ‘good girl’ that he can’t believe she would just run off and wants nothing to do with him. He knows in his heart that she is out there and just needs someone to find her and bring her home.
He turns to Nathan Hawk, who at first turns down the job because his policeman’s experience tells him that Teresa must be dead and by finding her he would only be robbing John Stillman of his hope. Hawk is just back from a Los Angeles vacation where all of his children were for once gathered in the same place. His daughter, Ellie – 19 going on 20 and with plenty of baggage to worry a father – who Hawk expects is going to drop out of her expensive Parisian school, where she has lived alone for the past year, accompanies him home.
He comes to suspect that Ellie is into drugs, though even his policeman’s nose must admit he has no real evidence beyond the fact that she has ‘probably’ smoked pot and after she borrows £20 quid from him. Twice. Nevertheless, he goes snooping one night and comes to believe that she is into hard drugs, possibly even heroin. When Ellie finds out, a fight pursues and Ellie takes off and doesn’t come home that night. Hawk lets his mind wander down the most treacherous road of possibilities, some involving the scruffy Yank she had befriended on the plane home. Hawk is on the verge of calling the authorities and reporting her missing when she shows back up. This little scare, the real life worry and fear he has for his daughter makes him empathize with John Stillman and the hell he is going through with his missing daughter. Ellie was gone for 24 hours. Teresa Stillman has been missing for three months. He decides to search for Teresa, but on the understanding that he fully expects to only discover a dead body.
He quickly discovers many clues that the local police never uncovered. First, Tom Gibson has a record from his youth for boosting cars, and did a little time. He also is living in a tent on a neglected field. Next, Teresa’s last client, for whom she designed the Japanese garden, is a well respected art dealer, but on further investigation it turns out that he was sent to prison on a fraud charge by Teresa’s father, John, years earlier. The search for the last client she was going to meet, Richard Crane, the night she disappears proves a dead end. He apparently does not exist, and though Tom and the last client are not totally above board, they seem to have no real motive for murder. Hawk feels certain that Teresa is dead and that the illusive Richard Crane is, if not the culprit, then the key to finding her.
One thing that bothers Hawk is a motive for doing harm to Teresa. The obvious is a revenge, but if it’s to be revenge, then why isn’t the killer gloating? And with no other missing young girls, the crime doesn’t feel like a serial killer. Just as Hawk has run out of leads to pursue, he is warned off the case by the local police and anonymous phone calls start to come in, one apparently from the illusive Richard Crane. Eventually Hawk comes to believe that Teresa may have been a mistake. She wasn’t the intended victim, but if that is the case, then who was and what is the motive? Eventually the investigation leads Hawk to the Scottish highland where he is in an apparent race to save the real target of this killer and in a chase reminiscent of John Buchanan’s 39 Steps, Hawk is pitted against a determined killer and factions of the authorities that want him to quit looking and let nature take its course.
Watkinson has written a first-class mystery/revenge thriller with a beautifully paced plot that at once begs the reader to race down the path where the clues lead and to slow down and savor it for the warmth and beauty of the prose and the setting. It examines the realm of murder, crime, revenge and society in an almost languid fashion and with a laconic style that begs the reader to think, to get involved . Hawk is a loveable yet damaged man; he’s psychologically complex and wryly witty, yet hard as nails and deadly serious when he is on a killers trail. But at home, he’s a soft touch where his children and those he cares for, and what he sees as justice, are concerned. Hawk is the perfect blend of the British cozy and the hardboiled, dark detective. And there are just enough quirks in his personality to take him to realms that detectives just never acknowledge let a love visit.
Hawk is such a wonderfully drawn character that he moves to the head of the class to stand next to Ian Rankin’s John Rebus or any of the other great contemporary detectives to be found in British crime fiction. He doesn’t muscle aside these other great characters so much as wander up to stand next to them, like he has been expected all along, but was running late, probably lingered too long over a glass of wine at the pub. Hawk is more approachable for the American reader, for, though he is thoroughly English, his voice is more international and the reader won’t get bogged down in trying to translate English to English. I know one thing. I won’t be missing the next novel by even a day of its release. Further, Watkins prose is smooth and powerful as a vintage Jaguar shifting through the gears and running up the revs. There are no stops and starts; there are no hesitations, just from opening to closing an engaging, finely told story that is wholly original yet pays homage to the classics of both literature and the genre.