Dan Calder is settled in New Zealand after his hectic time in The agency, the first in the Dan Calder trilogy. He has settled down with Tara Danes (from The agency) and they have adopted a dog, Jet. Dan is doing contract work for the Police and all is calm, until he gets a call from his old mate Nick Hetherington. Then Dan flies back to the UK to help Nick, whose daughter, Amber, has been arrested and accused of unlawful killing, possibly murder.
The second grave is a hard read; it is set in a milieu where sex workers are called, toms. prossies and whores. It is a world where blokes pack off their women folk to keep them out of harm’s way and are always surprised when a woman appears to have a brain – although in one case that’s probably because “you live with a detective for long enough and something has to rub off”. Women are criticised: “Mother’s God-awful dinners”, sexually abused, infantilised: “We need to be able to do what we have to do without me worrying about you and the girls”, and we are informed by doozies such as: “The majority of men sleep on the side of the bed closest to the bedroom door, a trait dating back to prehistoric ancestors guarding the cave entrance”.
So that is the context for the story – Dan leaves Tara and heads to England and to the aid of his old partner and friend Nick. The title of the book comes from the Confucius quote “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” And Tara realises that Dan’s eagerness is as much about seeking revenge on his bête noire Detective Chief Superintendent Jim Allen, who is in charge of the case, as it is about helping his friend Nick – but when she says she will go with him, Dan says no – who wants the voice of reason with you when you’re on a mission?
Nick’s daughter has been framed for the murder of a sex worker, Anna Rofe. Anna is a “typical tom” who won’t be missed, even one of the ‘good guys’ thinks it’s not too much of a problem mishandling her murder investigation – and one of the ‘bad guys’ complains that the killing of “worthless slags” shouldn’t be counted as murder at all.
Dan is calm on the surface, and spookily talented in his trade (he occasionally goes into meditative trances when mentally sifting through information). He and Nick methodically go about their work of finding out what really happened to Anna and why Amber is in the frame, in order to exonerate Amber. But Dan is also a wreck with demons, as we found out in The agency, and when we find out more about his background in this novel, we realise he really has got serious demons lurking in his past. And his black and white view of the world may be as much about self-preservation as prejudice and testosterone.
There are no surprises in this novel, the reader knows who did what to whom, and why. We understand where the corruption is and how some of the players got sucked in. We also realise quite early on that Dan’s take on others is not as dead accurate as he thinks. The tension in the novel comes from seeing how Dan and Nick can work it out in time, and how much additional damage will be done before the culprits are caught. The writing is tight, and the suspense builds nicely, a deadline being given by the date of Amber’s next required appearance at the Police Station. The pacing and dialogue flow, although Austin uses the device of having Dan and Nick explain their techniques to Amber as a way of letting the reader understand ‘the craft’, and this occasionally intrudes into the narrative. As with The agency, there are some very moving scenes.
There is an effective confusion in The second grave between the good guys and the bad guys. The methodical actions of Dan and Nick are echoed by those of one of the gangs carrying out a liquor heist. There are very bad cops (one, Binder, almost Shakespearean in his willingness to do anything to advance his career), and there are bad cops that turn out to be good cops, and good ex-cops who turn out to have done bad things, and there is a disregard for women (except as ‘Madonnas or whores’) on both sides of the divide.
Dan’s two satori moments come when Amber starts blaming herself for one of the appalling events in the novel, and then again when he realises he may have misjudged someone. Both moments lead us to believe that there might be a genuinely brighter future for Dan, a more open and nuanced view of the world, maybe we will see that when we catch up with Dan and Tara in part three of the trilogy, Frozen summer, due out later this year. The second grave could be read as a stand-alone, but I think would be better read after reading the The agency.