Conrad Taylor is a 60-year-old recluse who lives on Downshire Hill, one of the prettiest (if not the prettiest) streets in Hampstead in north London. A neighbor reports to police that she hasn’t seen him for some weeks, and neither has she seen the younger man who’s been staying with for the past two years, a Tamil simply known as Raj. The police investigate and find Taylor’s body. He’s been dead for some time, but it looks like and is later confirmed as murder. And there is no sign of Raj.
Detective Superintendent Simon Collison and his team at the Hampstead Police Station (just around the corner from the murder scene) set to work. What looks like what should be a fairly straightforward case becomes anything but that. No one knows much about the recluse of the family who lived in the house before him. No one knows how to identify Raj. No one knows of a possible motive.
As Collison’s team gleans what little they can, they learn that Britain’s Special Branch has an interest in Raj, putting Collison in something of an awkward position because, as he knows, he’s under consideration for a position with Special Branch. And then a second body is found, buried on the property line between Taylor’s house and his next-door neighbor. This one, however, is from 20 years before. Collison’s gut tells him the two murders are connected.
The House on Downshire Hill by Guy Fraser-Sampson is the latest novel in the Hampstead Murder series, and it’s a worthy companion to its predecessors. The novel is as much about the characters of its police detective team as it is how they go about their work – the painstaking effort the police have to undertake when the clues are few and the unknowns are many.
Fraser-Sampson is perhaps better known as an investment funds manager and business consultant. He’s a member of the teaching staff of the Cass Business School in London, an investment columnist, and the author of four books on finance and investment. In the history and fiction areas, he’s written a history of the Plantagenets, a review of cricket from 1967 to 1977 when the color barriers where breaking down, two successor novels to Mapp and Lucia novels of , and now this Hampstead Murder series.
The House on Downshire Hill is an excellent example of the police procedural (London style). We know that Collison and his team will find their killer, but they have to sort through old family history, hidden motives, and the complications of a security service keeping an eye on things. It’s no wonder that Special Branch is keen to hire Collison.
Top Illustration: St. John’s Downshire Hill, Hampstead, oil on canvas (1927-1928) by Sydney Carline.