I discovered Harry Bingham’s Fiona Griffiths novels sometime last year. There are five so far and I’ve now read four of them, out of order. The final one, The Dead House, was the one I read first, followed by the first and second. Then a few days ago I was alerted to a special Kindle offer (now alas expired), which enabled me to buy numbers three and four for 99p each. I’ve just finished reading The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths and have to say I think it is the best of a very good bunch.
If you haven’t yet discovered this excellent series, let me tell you why you should. Basically, it’s because you have to meet Fiona. She’s a young detective constable working for the police force in Cardiff. She’s smart, intuitive, courageous, well educated– she has a philosophy degree from Cambridge – but it’s her personality that makes her stand out. When she was a teenager, she developed a rare psychological disorder which causes its sufferers to believe they are dead. This is something which is apparently very hard to treat, but she got over the worst of it and is able to live a more or less normal life. However, she still has times when, for example, she can’t feel her legs, though she has techniques to help her get through this. More difficult to deal with is the fact that she never feels like she’s really an inhabitant of what she calls Planet Normal. Try as she may, she can’t really connect with the feelings she knows she is supposed to have. Its not exactly that she feels nothing – she certainly loves her adopted parents and siblings, and she knows she loves her policeman fiancé, but she’s never quite sure if what she is experiencing is actually the normal thing to feel. Although there is no clear reason why this disorder developed, she’s fairly sure that there must be a connection with the circumstances of her early life. She was actually a foundling, having been deposited, aged two, on the back seat of her father’s Jaguar. She’s spent a lot of time trying to find out who put her there, and strongly suspects that there must be a connection with her father’s criminal past (an inconvenient thing for a policewoman to deal with), but despite continuing attempts to find out more she has drawn a blank.
So – in this novel Fiona undertakes one of the most challenging tasks a police person can undertake. She goes on a training course to learn to go undercover. Most people fail this course, but Fiona passes with flying colours. She now has an alternative persona, Fiona Grey, a troubled young woman who has been in some trouble in the past, but now wants to be on the straight and narrow. She actually takes on two jobs, one as an office cleaner working the early shift from 4am (Fiona doesn’t sleep much) and the more important one, as a payroll clerk in a large financial company. She’s been placed there to try to discover the source of a serious fraud within the company – somebody has found a way of siphoning off sums of money, initially by ‘paying’ employees who no longer work there. When one of these people is found dead in distressing circumstances, and when an ex-employee of the company, who turns out to have been involved in the fraud, is murdered, it becomes clear that this is a very big criminal organisation. And soon Fiona is on the inside, having been recruited to work on the early stages of what is going to be a massive scheme which will net its perpetrators vast sums of money. It’s an incredibly dangerous business to have become involved in, as Fiona realises forcibly when she is transported to a remote farmhouse who knows where (she is blindfolded for the journey and has a hood over her head), where planning meetings are underway with a group of IT specialists flown in specially from Bangalore. Her chief instructor and minder in all this is the organisation’s head security man, a very charismatic, very dangerous chap. Fiona is certain he was responsible for the recent murder, but despite her best intentions (and the fact that she’s been picking out a wedding dress and planning a honeymoon) she finds herself increasingly drawn to him.
The two trips to the farmhouse are fraught with terrible dangers, especially the second one, and Fiona is lucky to survive. It’s all nail-bitingly exciting and tense, and well worth reading for the dramatic action. But what makes this novel so exceptional, and explains the rather mysterious title, is the way having to assume a different persona affects Fiona’s already fragile sense of self. Having spent so much time as Fiona Grey, she finds herself increasingly comfortable with this alter ego, whose life seems in many ways easier and less challenging than that of Fiona Griffiths. This is an important realisation and will have a knock-on effect on her future plans. But I’m not going to tell you any more. I can only very strongly recommend that you read this series – I don’t know how much it matters where you start, though I was a bit puzzled by Fiona in the fifth novel, which I read first, so maybe it would be well to begin at the beginning. If you already know Fiona but haven’t read this one, you’ve got a real treat in store.