Fictional investigators in contemporary crime novels make their task seem so easy. But then they do have a vast array of technologies and forensic skills at their disposal.
Their mid nineteenth century counterparts however had no such resources. No access to DNA analysis. No means to match hair and fibre samples. No phone triangulation records to pinpoint the culprit’s exact location to discover. Instead, as shown convincingly by In Two Minds , they have to find the truth the hard way — gathering information, sifting through the answers looking for inconsistencies or omissions and closely observing behaviour.
Those are the skills required one cold January morning in 1851 when the naked body of a man is discovered on an isolated Welsh beach. It falls to the new acting coroner Harry Lloyd Probert to establish the man’s identity and how he met his death.
Enter The Side-Kick
But how can an almost blind man hope to fulfil his duties as coroner if he can’t see the faces and expressions of people he needs to question, can’t read reports and documents and has to use a purpose-made device to write letters?
Every fictional detective needs a good number two and Harry is no exception. His right hand man is John Davies, a solicitor’s clerk who acts as Harry’s eyes and ears. This pair had their first outing in None So Blind, the opening novel in the The Teifi Valley Coroner series set in the rural communities of the Teifi Valley in West Wales. In Two Minds adds more flesh on the bones of these characters, introducing a note of potential discord in their relationship.
The main plot — tracking down the person/s responsible for the death — is meticulously planned. Almost too meticulous I felt at times because it made the pace rather slow. Of far more interest was how the novel shows conflict and dissension within these communities and in the minds of some of their inhabitants.
Justice Or Expediency?
On one level the book deals with opposing views on justice and the morality of medical research. It’s evident that no-one wants the acting coroner poking his nose around; not the magistrates who see Harry’s methods as unnecessarily expensive. Not the local police inspector who thinks the acting coroner is encroaching on his turf. Both of them want this business wrapped up quickly without any fuss whereas Harry’s priority is to find the truth by whatever means possible. If that means stirring up controversy by engaging the services of a medical man with unorthodox views about autopsies, that’s what he’ll do.
Dissension over his methods runs in parallel with Harry’s personal conflict about his future and his relationship with his father. The squire believes the boy’s first responsibility should be to the estate he will inherit in due course. But Harry doesn’t relish the idea of becoming a landowner nor living in a large house with servants at his beck and call. He just wants to become the permanent coroner. When his father falls ill, he has to make a choice between personal desire and family loyalty and duty.
In Two Minds proves to be an extremely apt title for this novel because we see many of the characters who, like Harry are ‘in two minds” about aspects of their lives. Some of the people in the Teifi valley cling to the past and the old traditions but others have their eyes on new opportunities across the ocean in a place called America. Even John Davies, Harry’s assistant, comes to think the new world offers more prospects than being a lowly solicitor’s clerk for the rest of his life.
In Two Minds is a well-conceived follow up to None So Blind, bringing more substance and complexity to the main characters and setting them up for future episodes. It’s great on period detail and atmosphere (details of the weather are a big contributor to this) while the angle of early emigration from Wales to America has clearly been researched extensively though not to the point the historical facts get in the way of a good yarn. It could be read as a stand-alone but probably best to start at the beginning of the story to understand some of the references to Harry’s past.
In Two Minds by Alis Hawkins: Footnotes
Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum. Her first novel, Testament, was published in 2008 by Macmillan and was translated into several languages.
The Teifi Valley — the setting for her series featuring Harry Lloyd Probert — is in the far west of Wales, where the three historical counties of Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire and Camarthenshire meet. The area which encompasses hills, valleys and coastland has been designated as one of “Outstanding Natural Beauty”.
This is book number 22 in my #21 in 21 project to read more books from the hundreds that lie unread in my bookshelves.