Ely is a small town, deep in the Cambridgeshire Fens. It's situated near low lying marshes and the canals that formed the trading routes of old. Current day Ely is slow and quiet. It's also deeply shrouded in heavy smog – part mist / part smoke from the local dump. The dump is a huge pile that's been building up for decades, and it's burning, deep in its centre, pumping pollution out to mingle with the mist.
Philip Dryden is a reporter with the local small newspaper. Philip was a bigger fish in a bigger newspaper / reporting pond until a car accident that nearly killed his wife Laura and changed both their lives forever. Laura was trapped in the car that Dryden was driving as it went into one of the canals. Comatose she has lain in a hospital bed for many years since then. A victim of “locked-in” syndrome, she has recently been able to communicate sporadically with the outside world via a computer driven by mouth suction. Since the accident Philip has refused to return to driving, and he is now ferried around by Humph, owner driver of a beaten up Capri taxi and devotee of language lesson tapes. Humph is happy to drive Philip and then sit and wait, in fact there is very little of Humph's life that's conducted outside of the Capri.
In THE MOON TUNNEL Philip is pursuing a number of stories. Firstly the future of the town dump is causing ructions, and as the smog lingers, the local council and the dump owners escalate the arguments. Not too far away, an archaeological dig is working on a series of Anglo-Saxon burial tombs. The tombs are situated below a WWII prisoner of war camp which held Italian, then German, servicemen up until the end of the war. Many of the Italian prisoners worked on farms in the area and a lot of them stayed in England after the war. They, and their families, are a prominent group in Ely still. When a skeleton is found in a wood lined tunnel, it makes sense that this is an escape tunnel from the POW camp, and the body must be that of an Italian serviceman. Only there doesn't seem to have ever been an escape from the camp. Combine that mystery with the theft of an extremely valuable painting from one of the local “Country Houses” in the dying days of the war, and Dryden thinks the body in the tunnel is not really who they re-buried him as.
THE MOON TUNNEL is one of those engaging, stately character driven English mysteries. Stately isn't meant to imply a slowness of plot that's annoying, rather that the story progresses elegantly and smoothly. Philip is a perfectly feasible amateur sleuth as he digs away at stories that interest him, perhaps that could be saleable to bigger papers than just his local rag. His ongoing devotion to his wife is touching, but not cloying or overplayed. The nightly visits to Laura, particularly now that she can communicate, albeit stiltedly, convey an intellectual as well as loving connection between them. His ongoing reliance on her ability to perform some research tasks for him is natural as is his acceptance that she may forget. Philip's ongoing friendship with Humph is also beautifully drawn out. Humph's a character and really Philip is equally as eccentric and these two men have created a friendship out of mutual reliance which is comforting and charming. Many of the cast of supporting characters also fall into that eccentric category. Ma, the dump owner, is a women to remember, as is Vee, the elderly sole remaining member of one of the great families of the great Country Houses.
Despite the amount of back story between Philip, Laura and Humph, THE MOON TUNNEL still stands up well on it's own. There is just enough information about their past to make the reader catch on to what is happening, without rewriting earlier books. The mystery of the body in the tunnel interweaves the archaeological team, local Druids and protesters, the ex-pat Italian community and Dryden's own family. There are components of this story that come from the Second World War, there are aspects that are very much current day. THE MOON TUNNEL is a very entertaining book, the mystery is interesting, the pace of the overall book is really good and Dryden and Humph are a great combination.