Sure and Certain Death: A Francis Hancock Mystery

Written by Barbara Nadel
Review by Martin Bourne

Francis Hancock is a middle-aged, half-English, half-Indian undertaker whose London “manor” is being systematically dismantled by Hitler’s Luftwaffe in World War Two. Now horribly mutilated women are showing up in the rubble, and it is clear a madman is murdering them. The police are undermanned and overworked, and Hancock finds himself pressured via family connections to investigate.

Hancock has been severely traumatised by his experiences in the First World War, and he frequently exhibits odd behaviour, such as running around the streets at night when the bombs are falling. He makes an interesting detective, although personally I find the idea of a man who regularly has nightmares of severed heads persisting in a profession where he regularly comes into contact with dead people a touch unlikely.

The supporting cast is much less clearly defined. Mostly they are similarly dressed, similarly spoken, similarly aged females. Not to give too much away, that’s one of the main points of the book, but still I found it quite hard work keeping track of them all. I’m not the only one – the author mixes them up at least once. She also describes Lascars as being “mostly Hindus” and yet in the very next sentence says they are “Christians to a man”.

As a “whodunit” this novel doesn’t work too well. The vagueness of the characterisation and the paucity of clues make it difficult for the reader to engage with Hancock’s detection work, and the resolution is unmoving. As an exposition of social history it is much better, and there are great insights into mid-war life and attitudes.