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Review: Kith and Kin, by Jane A. Adams
Severn, 2018. 218 pp. $29

In December 1928, two bodies wash up in the Kentish marshes, under circumstances anything but clear. But one thing Detective Chief Inspector Henry Johnstone and Detective Sergeant Mickey Hitchens know. They recognize one of the dead as a lieutenant of Josiah Bailey, a London crime boss who inspires such terror that people think twice before uttering his name.

Cliffe Pools, in the North Kent marshes, now cut off from the sea, forms a fleet, a saline waterway (courtesy Clem Rutter, 2007, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Johnstone and Hitchens also know that when Bailey gives an order, failure to comply may bring a death sentence, not only to the disobedient, but to their families. As such, the policemen must consider whether Bailey turned on his own loyalists, and why, or whether a rival gang has retaliated for an offense known only to the participants — in which case a turf war may erupt. What a terror that would be.

But to forestall that bloodbath, Hitchens and Johnstone must uncover the tangled roots of the murders, and since the key witnesses have connections to Bailey, no one will talk. Moreover, what the detectives gradually learn (but what the reader knows from the get-go) is that the case stems from a decade-old conflict that involves members of a Gypsy clan. They too are loath to speak up, because dealing with outsiders, especially officialdom, has always ended badly for them. As you might imagine, obstacles abound, the “no — and furthermore” that drives the story at a good clip.

However, this premise, though well executed, is surely not the first exploration of gang warfare in a mystery, nor is it what makes this novel worth reading. Rather, Adams focuses on her characters, starting with her two detectives, who care deeply about one another without ever saying so. They met during the Great War, so they have a bond that goes back, a tacit language. But it’s not just the shared background that makes them friends. Mickey Hitchens understands how the war still plagues Henry Johnstone, for reasons only alluded to (but which may have been explained in the first two installments of the series).

Touchingly, Mickey tries to make sure that Henry, a bachelor, bothers to eat enough and care for himself. But when his friend does something stupid in the line of duty, Hitchens doesn’t hesitate to say, “Lord, but you can be an awkward bastard when the mood takes you.” I can’t recall when I’ve run across such a pair of sleuths, or even a subordinate detective who never utters the word sir — in Britain, no less. The focus on characterization extends to the minor players, as with Henry’s sister, Cynthia; Mickey’s wife; and several witnesses, especially those who don’t belong to the mob. All receive a dash of inner life.

I also like how Adams creates a world of damaged people, about whom she refuses to moralize, and for whom luck and circumstance play a large role in whether they escape the darkness or succumb. Though Henry and his sister number among the escapees, that wasn’t a given, apparently, so he understands Bailey’s henchmen better than they realize, probably:

Childhood, Henry thought, ended all too swiftly for most children, especially the children of the poor. Henry and his sister, though his family had endured no such acute financial pressures, had also had their own childhood curtailed, in their case by a father who saw no value in creatures who could not contribute to his own wellbeing. Then the father had died and it had just been Henry and Cynthia and, all things considered, they had done well; in their case it was better to be parentless than so badly parented.

Adams’s prose reads like this throughout, clear, direct, and spare. Though I like that, sometimes her descriptions sound like laundry lists of detail, when I want evocations. The whodunit facet of the narrative consists largely of dialogue between the detectives, much of which veers into information dumps. To be fair, the two men must compare notes, yet how the author presents this exchange matters to me, and I prefer an indirect approach.

The back story, though essential and crisply told in itself, feels shoehorned in at times, including the prologue. In its defense, however, said prologue has one of the most compelling first sentences you’ll ever see, so I understand why Adams wanted to lead with it. Finally, though the ending satisfies in its realism, the solution fails to match the buildup, which leaves me wanting more.

Consequently, Kith and Kin is a novel greater than the sum of its parts. The characterizations are what command attention, and if I were to read another installment in the series, I’d do so to learn how the two detectives progress in their lives.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.