Lynda La Plante was not involved in the television series of Prime Suspect after the third instalment, but she was not shy about expressing her disappointment in how the series concluded in 2006, with Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison struggling with alcoholism and imminent retirement. In this novel, she attempts to snatch back ownership of her most famous character by going back in time to document Tennison’s first, faltering steps in the Metropolitan Police force.
It is 1973 and 22-year-old WPC Tennison is a probationer at an East End police station. She is keen but curiously naive for a woman who has just graduated from the police college at Hendon. The common jargon of police officers is a mystery to her; for example, she doesn’t know what a “bung” is. Tennison becomes involved in a murder case, typing up reports and filing information about the brutal killing of a young woman. La Plante excels in describing the minutiae of police work, the grinding day-to-day work of an investigation in pre-computerised days. She is a bit heavy handed in demonstrating the sexism inherent in the police. The female officers frequently being sent to make tea for senior male officers doesn’t need any commentary to make the point. Tennison develops a crush on DCI Bradfield, who is leading the murder investigation, seeing him as the kind of officer she aspires to be. La Plante uses this admiration to foreshadow Tennison’s later professional methods which echo Bradfield’s sometimes ruthless way of working.
La Plante also pulls back the curtain on Tennison’s family life, revealing her loving mother and father bewildered by her choice of career, and her younger sister wrapped up in her forthcoming wedding. This slice of domestic detail is interesting as Tennison seems as much an outsider in her own family as she does at work. Suffocating at home, Tennison moves into police digs, her first foray into independence.
She grabs you by the lapels, shoves you up against a wall, and doesn’t stop talking until you have heard the story she wants to tell. Tell is the operative word as La Plante’s writing style is not subtle and she will tell you exactly what all her characters are wearing, drinking, eating, and thinking. She is as present in this novel as her protagonists and she rarely leaves room for the reader to draw her own conclusions. The pace is breathless, and the plot is satisfyingly full of twists and turns. It reads more like the basis for a television series than a novel so it is not surprising to learn that La Plante has already adapted her novel into a six-part series for ITV, due to be screened in 2016.
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