Death Can't Take a Joke

This is Anya Lipska’s second novel and again features Janusz Kiszka, the maverick unofficial private investigator, and DC Natalie Kershaw, by now not quite a rookie, of London Docklands Police.  As with Where the Devil Can’t Go, the first of the series, at the heart of the novel lies the tension of the complex relationship that is unfolding between these two central characters. It is counter-balanced by the inner torments and insecurities that each of them experiences individually.  Kiszka, in particular, is haunted by demons from the past, especially for the death in Poland of his first love some twenty years before, for which he feels responsible.  Kershaw is gradually gaining confidence as she begins to succeed in her chosen career; she is proud to have been assigned to her first murder case.  It takes only a little adversity to knock her back, however.  Lipska shows the reader their thoughts and feelings through an adroit use of a dual interior monologue, created with a light touch.

Once again, much of the rich texture of this novel is derived from Lipska’s portrayal of the Polish community in London.  It is clearly a milieu that she understands well, but this is not to detract from her skill in depicting it.  Not every writer is capable of conveying with authenticity the character of an environment with which he or she is familiar.  It is also clear that, like all good writers, she does not merely present us with the raw material; she shapes it, so that she succeeds in making even the minor Polish characters memorable and not mere stereotypes.  Her judicious use of Polish words contributes to the texture of the writing and never seems forced.  (Apparently I’m not the only reader who has been intrigued by them: in response to demand, Lipska has included at the end of the novel a glossary of the Polish words that she has used.)

One character that had seemed to be a little in danger of tipping into the stereotype category in the first novel was that of Kershaw’s boss, Sergeant ‘Streaky’ Bacon. However, in this book, his personality is much more rounded, with some surprising touches: most notably, his concern for Kershaw herself.  Kershaw’s relationship with him improves as he takes on board her capabilities and notices her dedication.

I’ve not said much about the plot of this novel because it is so tightly constructed, with so little superfluous detail, that it would be only too easy to mar this review with a ‘spoiler’.  Very briefly, an apparent suicide which Kershaw is sent to investigate and the murder of one of Kiszka’s friends both take place within a very short space of time.  Are the two deaths linked?

Kershaw and Kiszka set out on separate missions to discover the identities of the perpetrators, Kiszka’s cavalier disregard for orthodox methods clashing with Kershaw’s commitment to operating within the law.  There are some nice ironies along the way, including a surprising last twist near to the end, but there is nothing in this plot that seems contrived: it unfolds with perfect conviction.

Death Can’t Take a Joke is my top read for this spring.  I thoroughly recommend it and I’d like to suggest that, if you missed Where the Devil Can’t Go when it was first published, you won’t be disappointed if you decide to splash out and buy both novels at the same time.

Anya’s book is being launched on 27th March 2014 and I wish her the very best for that!