THE SKELETON MAN is the fifth novel in this series - "starring" Philip Dryden, journalist - once Fleet Street luminary, now small-town newspaper man, and I have to confess this is a favourite series of mine. Not because the books are edgy, or dark or particularly enlightening of the human condition, but because everybody in them is relatively normal; the situations that Dryden ends up investigating are not that outlandish and because there is a real human touch in the way this author builds his characters.
THE SKELETON MAN is set in and around a little village that has been forcibly cleared by the Army to be used as a practice range - with the sorts of actions that the British Army is involved in nowadays, building searches; working in confined small towns - is exactly the sort of training they are looking for. The villagers did not go willingly however, and Dryden as a young reporter at the time, remembers the final days well. When he is invited on maneuvers with the Territorial Army back at the village he's on the spot when they discover the body - hidden in an undocumented cellar.
There's a lot to this plot. Not only do they have the skeleton of a young man; there is a missing woman; a missing girl; an injured young man pulled from a river with amnesia; a dead baby; a raided tomb; an army survey that seems to have inexplicably missed the existence of this cellar; and a lot of secrets for a village society that was split up a long time ago. Mind you, one of the skills of this writer is to take a very crowded plot and make it all roll along at a very English countryside pace. Maybe it's Humph - the cab driver - willing to pull over for a wait and a nap at any point (Dryden doesn't drive himself around); maybe it's the side trips into Dryden's personal life - his wife is slowly recovering from the car accident that put her in a coma. Maybe it's just the slightly sleepy, quiet Fen Country. THE SKELETON MAN has a lot happening, but it's not rushed (nor is anyone really rushing around).
If you've read earlier books in the series then you'll have Dryden's background a little more fleshed out than if you just picked up THE SKELETON MAN - but you should be able to read this on its own if you've not started out on this series before - there are touches of the back story, cleverly woven into the plot to give you enough of an idea of what's gone before.
There's also a tantalising, albeit very brief, new character built into this narrative - DI Peter Shaw - the surfing, fishing, seaside dwelling policeman. After 5 Dryden books I hear a rumour that the author is working on a book with him as a central character. Let's hope Dryden's not consigned to the newspaper archives totally just yet.