Catherine Berlin, known always as Berlin, works for the consumer affairs branch of the financial services agency based in East-End London, one of those quangos set up in the headier days of public spending sprees but now demoralised, without results, and probably destined for the chop as the cuts bite. Berlin is focused about pursuing the goals of the unit, which are to help individuals at the mercy of loan sharks. To this end, she has cultivated an informant with the code name “Juliet Bravo” (after an old, popular TV series). The informant has agreed to pass to Berlin information implicating Doyle, a local villain of mythic proportions. But before she can do so, she ends up in Limehouse Basin with her throat cut.
Berlin has not followed correct procedures, so her superiors slap a “no further action” notice on the file. Naturally, Berlin is not happy about this and decides to continue to investigate Doyle – resulting in her suspension from work, but not in any reduction in her determination to discover who is behind the murder.
The action switches to a council hearing, where a local doctor called George Lazenby (cue James Bond jokes) is fighting to keep his position, rare among British general practitioners, of prescribing small doses of heroin to registered addicts, rather than the officially endorsed methadone, which is thought to be the only way in which a person can be “cured” of his or her addiction. Berlin herself is revealed as a long-term heroin addict, one who (by her own account) has her craving under control by taking a daily maintenance dose of the drug – prescribed by Lazenby. Another theme of the novel is how Berlin finds herself with only seven days’ worth of dose remaining to her, which becomes her self-imposed deadline for solving the murder case (she has little faith in the police) and for finding a new source of her drug.
In Her Blood has a large cast of characters, ranging from Doyle and the past history that has made him a successful financial criminal today, to the city types, who are now feeling the pinch as investments crash and who are desperate to liquefy their assets. There are also two separate police investigations, as well as Berlin’s multi-problems with her line management at work. The novel switches from theme to theme, all set against a background of East-End London old and new, among the mists, the rotting canals and the abandoned buildings that once seemed to herald a new commercial boom. The reader has little time to get ahead of Berlin, as she herself is constantly on the move while she juggles all the limited facts at her disposal to attempt to create a coherent story – the fractured nature of which is at least in part due to her subjective perception of the world as a heroin addict.
Although this novel is, at times, a little vague around its edges, and switches scenes so quickly that some of the characters fail to gel sufficiently, it is a very interesting book. Berlin, in particular, is an unusual protagonist who refuses, as does the author, to take any easy moralistic positions. The final answer to the story of “Juliet Bravo” is perhaps, in the end, a little predictable, but is none the less powerful for that.
Publisher’s website: about the book and the author.