Today I am delighted to share my thoughts on Crow 27, the brand new Robert Finlay novel from Matt Johnson. Yes. You read that right. Robert Finlay is back and this makes me, for one, very, very happy. Here’s what the book is all about:
About the Book
Inspired by a series of true stories
Four young women soldiers.
One veteran cop.
It begins as a fight for justice.
It will end as a battle for survival.
When Detective Inspector Robert Finlay is sent to a military barracks to investigate a connection to weapons discovered in the possession of London gangsters, he is given strict instructions not to get involved in a suicide enquiry into the recent death of a young, recruit soldier.
The army partners Finlay with Floria McLaren, an ambitious military policewoman who doesn’t believe the death was a suicide. Ellie Rodgers is a traumatised army officer who discovers the existence of a cabal of soldiers who exploit young recruits for sexual and criminal purposes. Jodie Baker is the plaything of a devious and narcissistic training sergeant. Wendy Russell is a senior police officer with an undercover agent gone missing. All are in danger. Separately, or together, they must fight for justice.
What appears to be a routine investigation soon takes on a life of its own as Finlay finds himself in a struggle with powerful forces – both criminal and from the military establishment – who know that, inside the wire, they make the rules.
Oh how I have missed Robert Finlay. I loved the series and he has made a very welcome return in Crow 27 with a case that sees him return to his military roots, albeit under a cover of secrecy. Called upon to investigate the origins of some military weapons that have been recovered in London, he soon finds himself in the midst of another, altogether more worrying investigation, one that the powers that be on both sides of the military/constabulary divide would rather he keeps out of. Alongside all of this, we are faced with another, very disturbing case involving years of abuse experienced by young female recruits. It’s an infuriating, and all too believable story, but just how far does this particular cover up go?
I really love the character of Robert Finlay, love the way that Matt Johnson has moulded and shaped his personality, using all of the trials he has been through to develop a strength and determination, as well as a strong moral code, that makes him a perfect foil to the kinds of foe he finds himself working to ensnare. Crow 27 is slightly different in tone to its predecessors, in part due to the fact that time catches up with us all, and Finlay is no longer the all action hero we may remember from previous adventures. That’s not to say that I didn’t see those sparks and thrills that I am used to, but due to the very nature of the story, and the fact that Finlay is, for the most part, keeping his former military experience under wraps, it is less high stakes action, more about tracking and covert investigations. We are still treated to plenty of action and some very worrying, pulse pounding scenes – Finlay is no pushover after all. I love that the author is able to use his own experience to inform the story, giving it an air of authenticity and that sense that you are in the hands of someone who really does understand.
Speaking of authenticity, the central theme of this story, perhaps not quite the one you might expect it to be, really does that feeling of being all too plausible, inspired as it was by true stories of abuse of power within the military. Matt Johnson creates an atmosphere within the novel that speaks to the fear felt by certain characters, and the steely determination of others who will not be victims. Whilst it may seem illogical to most people that anyone suffering such abuse would stay silent, there is a clear understanding in this novel that when it comes to the military, things are never quite that simple. These are more than just work colleagues, and it is a kind of brotherhood based on absolute trust. In a war their lives could all literally depend upon it. But the author addresses not only the conspiracy of silence that exists within the troops themselves, but also the senior Military personnel who would rather cover up than expose the vicious hazing, and worse, within the ranks, the likes of which has been widely reported over recent years. This is a work of fiction, and it is set in the recent past rather than being present day, but given the tales of misogyny and sexual misconduct that have been, and still are being, uncovered from that era. it is quite easy to believe and to feel the anger that such abuse invokes.
One of the key things that works in this book for me though, aside from the clear research and determination of the author to portray the stories of victims, even in a fictional form, are the characters that inhabit Finlay’s world. Not only is his wife, Jenny, back offering her pearls of wisdom and support to Finlay, but there are some really brilliant characters, new and old, to support him in his investigations. Finlay’s Boss, Bill Grahamslaw is back directing the investigation from the sidelines, trying hard to keep his full background somewhat hidden to allow him to properly investigate. On the scene in Wales we have a trio of strong female characters who inform the story in their own ways. First up is ACC Wendy Russell who is trying to support Finlay in his investigation and is the main reason he is there in the first place. There is also 2nd Lieutenant Ellie Rodgers who has her own reasons for wanting to expose the abuse, as well as a past which creates rather a shocking opener to the whole book, setting readers up for what is to follow.
But it is Sergeant Floria McLaren, Finlay’s Military Police liaison who is the real star alongside Finlay. She is tough, determined and, in spite of his best attempts to keep his past hidden, has the measure of Finlay quite quickly. She is instrumental in part of the storyline, in particular encouraging Finlay to help her unofficially investigate the death of a soldier in relation to the missing guns. I liked Floria, liked her banter with Finlay, as well as the seriousness with which she approached her job. I really like the way in which Matt Johnson has taken the inner fight of these three women and use it to show that the women in this story are more than just victims. There is a mental fortitude driving them to succeed in the face of real prejudice and adversity, but tellingly, there are other female characters who are being slowly broken by their abuse, and this element of the story, the lone term impact in the mental health of those who are victims, is not ignored or trivialised.
This is an important story that has been well told. It holds the balance between being told purely for entertainment and being overly critical of the Armed Forces, the vast majority of whom are honourable men and women. The author has struck the right tome, getting the stories of the victims out there, and setting the scene for how such a scenario may occur, whilst still keeping the tension and pace of the police investigation that pushes the story along to a fast paced, jeopardy laden conclusion. If, like me, you really enjoyed the Finlay series, you really need to add this book to your collection. Definitely recommended.
About the Author
Matt Johnson served as a soldier and Metropolitan Police officer for twenty-five years. Blown off his feet at the London Baltic Exchange bombing in 1993 and one of the first officers on scene at the Regent’s Park bombing in 1992, Matt was also at the Libyan People’s Bureau shooting in 1984 where he escorted his mortally wounded friend and colleague, WPC Yvonne Fletcher, to hospital. Hidden wounds took their toll. In 1999, Matt was discharged from the police suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While undergoing treatment, he was encouraged to undertake writing therapy where he described his experience of murders, shootings and terrorism. One evening, he sat at his computer and started to weave these notes into a work of fiction that he described as having a tremendously cathartic effect on his condition. The result was the best-selling thriller Wicked Game, a novel nominated for the CWA John Creasey Dagger and which became the highest-rated 2016 debut novel on Amazon UK. In 2018, Matt was voted at No.22 in the WH Smith reader survey to identify the all-time best crime writers, worldwide.