Deity is the third outing for DI Damen Brook, a resolutely old school copper with few friends in the force and less still outside it. If you’ve read Dunne’s previous books, The Reaper and The Disciple, you’ll know that Brook is carrying some heavy emotional baggage from his previous cases, which have wrecked his promising career in the Met and seen him move up to Derby. Brook is a rare breed in crime fiction, no improbable vices, no smart-aleck tendencies, but with keen intelligence and dogged determination to see justice done.
Deity opens with the discovery of a man’s body in the Derwent. Naked save for a loincloth, he has been scrubbed clean and his hair freshly barbered. It looks like a suicide until they flip him over and discover evidence of amateurish surgery on his torso. The killer has emptied his chest cavity and stitched him back up before dumping him. Initially Brook and his team assume it must be some kind of mix-up at a funeral home or a morgue. The victim is a tramp so there is little pressure to find his killer, but then another body surfaces in a local gravel pit, another dead vagrant with his internal organs missing. Except this time the heart has been stitched back in and Brook detects an improvement in the killer’s technique. Is he just practising on these homeless men? Refining his skills for more noteworthy victims?
Perhaps the four students who have gone missing from home after an 18th birthday party? They’re a disparate bunch: Becky the model-wannabe indulged by her father and despised by her mother; Kyle the sensitive soul from a broken home, struggling with his sexuality; Russell the film lover always hiding behind a camera of his own; and Adele, clever, troubled Adele, caught between a lusting father and a dismissive ex-lover.
At first no-one takes their disappearances too seriously. Teenagers stay out all night, get drunk, take spontaneous trips abroad. But as Brook’s team delves deeper into the youngsters’ last known movements they make some strange discoveries. Laptops have been wiped, Facebook accounts closed and SIM cards taken out of phones. It all looks planned, almost staged. And then the video appears – Deity.com – showing the missing teens committing mass suicide.
Deity is a deeply unsettling and totally engrossing book. The story is multi-layered and fiendishly plotted, full of blind alleys and wicked twists which ensure you never know what or who to believe. But this is more than just another serial killer novel. Dunne has tackled some big issues in Deity – the drive for self-destruction and how it is inextricably linked with adolescent fear of failure and mediocrity, and the allure of fleeting fame and the pervasiveness of social media in young people’s lives. Too many authors present their readers with a cool and perfect corpse at the beginning of a book, devoid of any personality, but Dunne’s clique of maybe-victims are messy, complex, full flesh-and-blood characters. It takes a writer of rare perception to produce credible teens and Dunne has pulled it off beautifully.
If you’re a fan of Mark Billingham’s Thorne novels or the late, lamented Morse, then Steven Dunne is the writer for you.