Police procedurals are a tried-and-true genre, so whenever a new series comes along, I always want to know what sets it apart. Why should I read this first in a series, as opposed to the many others that have come and gone? Nadine Matheson, a criminal defense lawyer based in London, answers that question with her main character in her debut The Jigsaw Man: Detective Inspector Anjelica Henley, a Black woman whose position is highly mistrusted by her family and larger community.
Henley's identity certainly isn't the focus of The Jigsaw Man, but it permeates the novel. As Henley tries to do her job, investigating serial murders that hit a little too close to home, she's constantly reminded that her community doesn't trust her profession or her colleagues. They wonder why she's chosen the job she has, and what it might say about her as a person. It adds an additional layer of complexity to an already well-written and engaging novel.
The premise of Matheson's debut involves the titular serial killer, the Jigsaw Man, whom DI Henley put behind bars — but not after he stabbed her, seriously wounding her. Anjelica has been on desk duty since, and though she's recovered from her physical injury, she hasn't come close to working through her mental trauma. When she gets a call that there's been another murder that looks suspiciously like the Jigsaw Man's work, she knows it's time for her to return to active duty.
I was invested in Anjelica's story from the very beginning. Matheson introduces her in a chaotic fashion, as Anjelica is arguing with her husband, Rob, about her job — he's trying to force her to choose between her profession and her family, and Anjelica just wants to go to work. It's messy, it's difficult, and it's entirely relatable at a time when parents (especially mothers) are being forced to choose between their jobs and their kids. It's almost painfully real, as you get a peek at Henley's raw, unfiltered thoughts and emotions, and it made me empathize with her almost immediately.
That's not to say Anjelica is perfect, or always makes decisions I agree with — some of her choices were downright cringeworthy — but she is doing the best she can in a world that feels like it's conspiring against her, and I really empathized with her predicament. And as more murders surface, and it becomes clear that DI Henley's team has a copycat killer on their hands, it almost becomes too much for her to bear. Her past trauma comes roaring to the surface in an excellent examination of PTSD, which is such a presence it almost functions as an entirely separate character in this thoughtful novel.
Matheson writes a tense, fast-paced narrative in The Jigsaw Man, and I enjoyed every second I spent with it. I'm finding it increasingly difficult to sit and concentrate on books these days, but I read this one in a single sitting — the twists and turns are excellent, and the author ratchets up the suspense with every chapter. She also writes a fascinating and complex villain in Peter Olivier, the original Jigsaw Killer. He's charismatic, manipulative, and entirely obsessed with DI Henley. Despite the fact that he's behind bars, you get the uneasy feeling that he's the cat and Anjelica is the mouse in this story.
One aspect of the novel that really jumped out at me was the way that Matheson develops her secondary characters. They're not all necessarily likeable, and they certainly aren't perfect, but even people who are only on the page for a few scenes come to life in a really stellar way. The author makes this kind of character development seem easy and effortless, no small feat given the number of characters and the fact that it's her debut. I really enjoyed getting to know these people, in particular Henley's new partner, Salim Ramouter, and look forward to revisiting them in future installments.
This novel certainly has a gritty feel, but it never exploits darkness or despair for thrills. Instead, even in its most gruesome moments, it has a very real quality to it. Matheson has a fresh voice and perspective, and I'm incredibly excited to see where she takes these characters in future novels — you can bet I'll be reading every book she writes for the foreseeable future.
Swapna Krishna writes about space, tech, and pop culture at outlets such as Engadget, StarTrek.com, and Oprah Magazine. You can find her on Twitter at @skrishna.