Review: Black Sand

Black Sand

by John Edgar Evans

It’s 1973 and in the sleepy, close-knit English community where Detective Chief Inspector Edgar Sparrow makes his living, he spends more time behind a desk smoking his pipe than he does on the beat. The small station that houses the handful of detectives that serve and protect the town isn’t used to too much activity, and although they would enjoy a mystery or two to solve every now and then, the policemen are grateful for the general sense of safety and security in their area.

After the turn of the New Year, things begin to change as a nefarious and sinister shape starts to take form, bringing with it a cloud of fear that takes root amongst the snow and drizzling rain January has to offer. An innocent young girl walking her dog discovers a man murdered and reports it to the police, and when Detective Sparrow and his unit arrive, they are baffled by the circumstances — the poor man has been murdered not once, not twice, but three times. Shot, stabbed, and strangled, the man has been left abandoned in his car for any unlucky passerby to find. Who on Earth would need to kill someone three times? And why were they left out in the open, as it were?

” ‘Huh, doesn’t look like a robbery — the wristwatch looks expensive and hi wallet is here. A couple of sovereigns, some half crowns, some pennies and photos, and ah, an envelope with a name and address.’

Holding the items carefully by their edges so as not to compromise any residual fingerprints, he handed the envelope and photos to Willis. In truth, Sparrow needed glasses for small print but was avoiding the issue, telling his wive, Eve, that at fifty two he wasn’t an old man yet and didn’t need glasses.

Willis held the items equally carefully. ‘They look like picture of his wife, and children. They’re only toddlers, too. The envelope is addressed to Gordon James, Ellingham’s, Buryfield.’

‘Ellingham’s The department store at the bottom of St. John’s Hill?’ Nichols asked.

‘Yeah, must be the place, perhaps he works there,’ Willis replied. 

‘Anything interesting inside?’ Nichols enquired. 

Willis pulled out a one-page piece of writing paper. ‘Well, well, this is interesting, take a look at this, boss.’ 

Sparrow left off from his car searching and turned to Willis and Nichols. Sparrow peered at the sheet of paper upon which letters cut from various magazines and newspapers had been pasted.

It read, ‘Talk and you die.’ “

Inside the smoke-filled offices of the police station, Detective Sparrow and his two inspectors, Willis and Nichols, begin the task of tackling a lengthy and convoluted puzzle. Trying to fit the mismatched pieces together is proving more and more difficult, especially when a second murder occurs not long after the first, perpetuating the fear around town and bringing more stress on the inspector’s shoulders. The two victims have a couple of things in common besides the strange manner of death — they both used to work for the prominent and high-end department store called Ellinghams, owned by an old aristocratic family tainted by a dark past. Both victims were also found with trace amounts of a strange black sand in their pockets and under their fingernails; sand that doesn’t come from anywhere near their part of England. Interviews with the shop’s staff are proving fruitless and the store manager Mrs. Scrivens is being more than a little difficult, forcing Detective Sparrow to send his newest recruit, young and eager Diana Evans, in undercover.

” Diana looked at the clock; it was coming up to four. The Ladies’ Wear department was empty, the appalling weather was affecting everything. People were staying indoors well out of it, and it was already winter dark outside. Unfortunately for Diana, Scrivens had been in her office virtually all day. Certainly not away from it long enough for her to get at the warehouse key. But Diana had been honing her plan and decided that getting the key from Scriven’s office would be difficult, getting it back equally so. If she did manage to get it out she wouldn’t be able to keep it for any length of time in case its loss was discovered. It was while she pondered the problem she had a flash of inspiration. “

Alice is the only daughter of Margery Ellingham, and they live together in a tidy and impressive home tucked snugly onto one of the town’s more prominent streets. Margery is one of the three siblings left in charge of the Ellingham shop and fortune since their parent’s deaths, and takes the concept of showing her money around seriously. Living with her cruel and cold mother has left Alice embittered and anxious, and with the detectives now sniffing around the property, Alice finds herself sharply intrigued and strangely happy that something has finally come to cut into the endless lengths of boredom her life has become since the end of her marriage. Her uncle Timothy is showing up around the house a lot more than he used to, and frequent phone calls coming in from her Uncle Ralph in Egypt are becoming the norm as well. Could her mother be involved in something so deviant as the murders of the shop’s staff, or is it all a terrible coincidence?

The detectives can’t seem to gain any ground in the murder case and as it happens, a string of burglaries are thrown onto their docket as well. Pressure from the media and the Superintendent to solve the string of mysterious crimes around the town is reaching an all-time high and Chief Inspector Sparrow is growing desperate. With only a few days left to solve the case, will he finally be able to crack it?

Black Sand is the first attempt at crime writing by John Edgar Evans.  I would have loved to have enjoyed it more, but the bouncing back and forth between perspectives proved a little confusing and I was dying for more character development, as I found each of the characters very interesting. My impression of Edgar Sparrow was one of a patriarchal mentor shaped in the images of an older Sherlock Holmes and Columbo. He was more of a mentor than a super sleuth, and I respected and admired his attempts at backing away from situations and allowing and encouraging his younger partners to jump in and try their hand. His three pups-in-training were all competent and interesting — I just wish there was more of them. I was intrigued by the character of Alice, cooped up as she was and virtually held prisoner by her mother, but there wasn’t enough character development for me to understand quite where her feelings for Sparrow were coming from. As the novel left off with a cliffhanger, I am assuming there is more to come featuring this cast of a motley crew, and I will be ready to read more when the time comes.

I believe the author had too many ideas and tried to shove them all into one book, leaving things a bit muddled. The pace was a tad slower than I am used to from American crime-writing authors such as Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson. Evans’ approach was a bit different and instead of moving quickly through solving the mystery, the team’s plans and strategies seemed a bit more realistic. They didn’t come across their information easily and at times, I felt as if I were sitting in the smoke-filled offices with them, struggling to figure things out and decide which avenue to take next. I was pleased with the writer’s take on words, but the sometimes very sharp back-and-forth took me some time to adjust to.

Black Sand is a slow-burning mystery that readers will be able to figure out sooner than the detectives will, but the characters will draw readers in and have them rooting for them. 3.5 out of 5 stars is my rating, and I recommend it to lovers of the residents at 221 Baker Street, or anyone looking for something to curl up with on a rainy day.

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