On the Beat

Lynda La Plante
Simon and Schuster
September 2015, RRP$39.99

TennisonA long time ago—back when the term ‘on a school night’ actually referred to a night before attending a learning institution—I remember sticking a tape into a VCR recorder to capture the rest of the first Prime Suspect mini-series. It was after all a school night and Netflix was not yet the tiniest twinkle in a TV addict’s eye. I don’t remember the series in great detail; Helen Mirren striding down a corridor to visit someone in the cells, Helen Mirren drinking more than she should, Helen Mirren yelling. Basically, Helen Mirren is about all I remember.

Tennison, Lynda La Plante’s first Prime Suspect novel in nearly two decades (La Plante wrote the screen plays for Prime Suspect 1 and 3, as well as three novelisations) is a prequel to that TV series I watched in the nineties. Tennison takes us back to the 1970s, where the newly graduated WPC Jane Tennison—Helen Mirren’s character in Prime Suspect—is about to take her first steps from community policing into detective work.

Tennison is a police officer in a metro police force that is worlds away from the police force of Prime Suspect. Computers, mobile phones, even forensics, are yet to become a major part of policing. And women police officers were still very much in the minority, and treated as distractions or liabilities. Jane is not yet the confident workaholic police officer set to be the first female DCI, with much of the novel centred on her learning the ropes and making mistakes, as all rookies are prone to.

La Plante’s dual writing career as both a screenwriter and a novelist (La Plante also wrote the 1983 robbery drama Widows, another favourite of mine) is clear in the ratcheting of tension as the novel progresses. Even the occasionally awkward phrase, that perhaps would have translated better onto the screen than on the page, does not dampen the perfectly built drama that makes the last few chapters of the novel stay-up-reading-past-your-bedtime worthy.

As often occurs in the police procedural/crime genre, Tennison begins with the death of a beautiful girl, the investigation into her murder is Jane’s first real experience working a murder case. But it is not the murder of Julie Ann that is the crime at the centre of Tennison. Instead a bank robbery being planned by the notorious Bentley family is luckily (or unluckily if you are the Bentley’s) brought to the attention of the police. The story is told through several POV characters including members of the dysfunctional Bentley family who are perhaps the strongest characters of the novel.

I really enjoyed Tennison. It was the perfect restorative read, where the story and the characters are absorbing to the degree where you can block out the outside world, but the gore level is not such that I have to sleep with the lights on. I am curious to watch the newly announced mini-series adaption when it arrives on our shores. Though I do not envy the actress who must take on the role of Jane, Helen Mirren has left her some big shoes to fill.

About Edie Hawthorne

Wishes she could read more than she does.
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