A Matter of Blood sees Sarah Pinborough craft a bleak, near-future semi-dystopian setting for this the first in her horror-thriller trilogy The Dog-Faced Gods. The government and population are broke: the financial system has collapsed, handed a life-line via a global corporate behemoth The Bank. The NHS is at breaking point and is available for few people, a woeful situation compounded by a new, more virulent strain of HIV that’s rapaciously claiming more victims.
As if this state of play wasn’t sufficient enough to depress, criminal atrocities that play an immediate backdrop to the novel include the daylight shooting and murder of two children, and a brutal serial killer slaughtering citizens in a brazen, yet sickly creative manner. Make no mistake, the London, and atmosphere, which this book sets up provokes discomfort as one realises that given a few small nudges one way or another in the global-macro fiscal state alone, it could be a city that’s much more realised.
The focus of much of A Matter of Blood lays with DI Cass Jones. A hardworking, read workaholic, successful detective he’s nonetheless the product of a brutal career path with a bruised service-history to match the attitude he exudes. Whilst he’s a dedicated cop he’s also on the take, but all policemen in this society are. He’s also drink-riddled and drug-addled; the coke he takes with his whisky is certainly not the fizzy variety.
If he wasn’t already carrying a caseload that would cripple a lesser detective, further misery is added to this pile: dead bodies are starting to crop up around London town and they’re being left in that state that would suggest a serial killer is hard at work. And so there is, only it’s definitely not your usual dice-and-slice type psychopath going at it. There’s something else afoot, of a more paranormal variety, yet Cass and colleagues are oblivious to this, as yet.
As fundamentals linking these killings and another major case begin to merge another brutal bolt from the blue knocks Cass further: the death of his brother Christian and his sister-in-law and nephew in a most horrifying circumstance. With his world in serious danger of crashing in around him, he can take no respite but must piece together the precarious puzzle that is building up around him.
As the first in a trilogy this book has a difficult task of laying down the foundation for the remaining two novels in the sequence. The supernatural aspects of the novel are initially quite conspicuous and shrouded in some enigma. That’s for good reason most likely, though Pinborough has said elsewhere that this becomes more central in later books, it’s tricky nonetheless to classify this book as falling strongly in any one particular genre or sub-genre area in this instance.
I must be honest: I found the first half of this book very hard to get into; I literally stopped and started in a way that I haven’t with another book for a long while. If I hadn’t read any of Pinborough’s other works I might’ve tossed this one aside, but I stuck with it.
That persistence paid off. About 45% or so into the book (got to love those Kindle progress bars), what I felt to have been a slow and slightly clunky journey really started to pick up; everything began to be more fully realised. Having concluded the book and reflected somewhat, I’m sure this patch of molasses I hit in the first half of the text was down to its trilogy origin, and the need to pace differently perhaps. Nonetheless, it did bother me enough to warrant mention.
Having bemoaned a slow start to this text it would be extremely disingenuous to not give credit where due for the title’s considerable assets. There’s the incredibly atmospheric world that Pinborough has sculpted here. This London, this variant ‘forked path’ as Jorge Luis Borges might put it, has been very well planned and thought out.
So too is there a lot going on throughout, and it takes a brave author to attempt to pull of the complicated manoeuvrings, the genre hybridisation of crime, thriller, horror and supernatural if you will, that Pinborough does.
Then there’s the second half of this book which I felt really, really picked up pace. It was like the idea-soup swimming around the author’s mind got spiked with something peppy and this story started to kick like a mule. Cass’s interactions with his past and present were ideal. Here too is a truly haunted man.
As Cass’s investigations, and those of his colleagues and associates at Paddington Green nick take off, threads left hinted at and dangling early on were eventually latch-hooked to form more coherent strands, dipped in supernatural mystery dye and then cross-weaved into a more fully realised tapestry of terror.
Whereas I’d earlier begun resenting turning on my Kindle to read this book I found that with the second half I just couldn’t put it down. These words couldn’t leap into my eyes fast enough. Not just that, but the story being told here is propped up with truly classic elements. The very nature of evil, of humans, of those biblical sins in particular, is put under the microscope.
The conclusion was equally strong, with a novel twist especially given the different directions that Pinborough pulls the reader in on the way. I’ve read several of her other horror books, and have always felt she’s a writer offering great bang-for-buck quota to the horror-fiction fan. With the first part of A Matter of Blood I was worried that in this instance might not be the case, but my worries were placated as this one turned around sharply, ultimately baiting the hook with a mouth-watering chunk of horror for the second in The Dog-Faced Gods trilogy.