by Jane Isaac
‘A wet sponge touched my nose. I threw my eyes open. It was not a sponge. I shuddered, darted back. A rat.’
It is always good to read a novel set in places one knows quite well. Before It’s Too Late is one such story, a police procedural thriller based mainly in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Min Li, a Chinese student at Stratford College is kidnapped after leaving a birthday party for her boyfriend, Tom. They have argued. Drugged by her attacker, she wakes up in a dank underground chamber with a locked grill across the top. Charged with finding Min, DI Will Jackman, fears she may be the third victim of a possible serial killer. Two young women have already been found dead in the district and the police have made no progress.
When the kidnapper(s) demand a ransom, Jackman starts looking for family reasons for Min’s disappearance. Her parents live in China but she has an uncle in the UK. The search for suspects, and for this uncle, takes the detective to Birmingham, where he is immersed in the close cultural – and sinister – world of Chinatown. Jackman has family problems of his own. A car accident has left his wife Alice in a comatose state and he has been forced by his superior’s to have counselling sessions. The accident has also hindered his promotion to chief inspector, which Jackman resents, especially when more senior officers are making what he considers to be stupid decisions.
‘Alice sat in a green easy chair beside her bed. Blue straps, just visible beneath the hands folded into her lap, were clipped together to keep her from falling forward …. a line of spittle had collected in the groove beside her mouth …. her blue eyes hung open.’
A few days after Min’s abduction, a second Chinese student, Lonny Cheung, is taken. The officers begin to fear the worst. Jackman needs to find them both Before It’s Too Late.
Told from two separate points of view, that of Jackman in third person, and of Min Li in first person, Before It’s Too Late is a well-written, fast-moving read. Whilst the reader knows that Min is probably not going to die, switching between her and the detective’s view creates enough tension to sustain the mystery to the end. Deprived of proper food and toilet facilities, Min fears she will die in the bunker. The horrors of her treatment she relates with nauseating realism. The arrival of Lonny gives her hope but it so quickly seeps away. Time seems to be running out for both of them.
‘I was almost through when my hand slipped. My chin hit the metal. I screamed as a pain seared my jaw bone and kicked out, desperately trying to gain a foothold. My foot collided with Lonny.’
Stratford-upon-Avon is an attractive, historic town which one associates mainly with Shakespeare. In Before It’s Too Late, and in Jane Isaac’s hands it becomes an unpleasant and sinister place, theatrical but not in any sense Shakespearean. I guess it has its grisly crime, just like anywhere else.